Chantey Pathfinder

Black and white drawing of sailors playing instruments and singing.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has a strong connection to sea chanties and sea songs. The first Saturday of every month we host our famous Chantey Sing. This sing-along on one of our historic ships attracts hundreds of people a month. In the fall, performers from all over the world come to participate in our Sea Music Festival.

If you're interested in learning more about sea chanteys (also known as "shanties") please take a look at some of the resources below. This is not a comprehensive list, rather a sampling of the types of material the Research Center has. There are a few citations to articles which can be read through academic databases. Please see your local public librarian for help accessing these.

A note: "Sea chanteys" is a term usually used to describe work songs. These are shorter, with easily repeatable and remembered lyrics to be sung while hauling lines or turning a capstan. "Sea songs," in general, refers to songs sung about sailors by sailors reflecting their time at sea, away from home and in foreign ports.
Music (CDs, cassettes, etc.)

CDs, cassettes! Yes, we have them here in the Research Center. Younger readers might be wondering what these odd relics are, but don't worry, we can assist you with playback. Our audio collection runs the gamut from the expected, such as master shanty performer Stan Hugill to the "Huh, I guess that makes sense" of Harry Belafonte. Here are some of the more popular ones:

Bryant, Jerry, and Starboard Mess. Roast beef of old England: traditional sailor songs from Jack Aubrey's navy. ESS.A.Y. Recordings, 2000. CD.

Those of you familiar with the Master and Commander novels featuring Aubrey and Maturin by Patrick O'Brien might be interesting in this recording.

Holdstock and Macleod. Deepwater shanties. Canyon, CA : Davis, CA : Neil J. Young, Distributed by Dick Holdstock, 1997. CD. Dick Holdstock and Allan Macleod have been performing together since 1976. Both are from the UK but now live in the US and play all over the world.

Holdstock and Murphy, Kasin, Peter, Nichols, John, et al. San Francisco shanties and sea songs of California's gold rush. Dick Holdstock and Tom Murphey, 1996. CD.
Holdstock and Murphy are Carol and Dick Holdstock and Peter Murphy. Peter Kasin is a ranger at our park and host of the Sea Music Festival. This compilation, as the title points out, focuses on tunes popular during the Gold Rush.

Holdstocks, Nauticus, Kasin, Peter, et al. Shanties and sea songs from way out west. Carol and Dick Holdstock, c2000. CD.
This is another collaboration between the Holdstocks and Peter Kasin, again focusing on West Coast shanties.

Kasin, Peter, Adrianowicz, Richard, Boyd, Isabella. With shipmates all around. Handspikes Music, 2010. CD.
This CD focuses mostly on work songs--songs sailors belted out as they turned capstans and hauled lines. Many of the songs here have not been recorded before so they are "new" very old songs.

Kemp, Harry and Grey Funnel Line. Rogue's gallery: pirate ballads, sea songs, & chanteys. Epitaph, 2006. CD.
This modern punk rock influenced compilation includes recordings by artists such as Sting, Richard Thompson, Nick Cave, Lou Reed and both Rufus and Loudon Wainwright.

Killen, Louis. Blow the man down: sea songs and shanties. Topic Records, LTD. 1993. CD.
Known later in life as Louisa Jo Killen, this recording captures what made Louisa Jo one of the most beloved folk artists in both the UK and the US.

National Maritime Museum Festival of the Sea. Songs of the sea. Smithsonian Folkways, 2000. CD.
The National Maritime Festival of the Sea was held at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, in 1979. Some of the best traditional musicians in the world gathered on our ships for singing, dancing and celebrating life on the sea.

Pint, William and Dale, Felicia. Port of dreams. William Pint, 1991. CD.
William Pint and Felicia Dale are another husband and wife group that have performed at the Sea Music Festival. Ms. Dale plays the hurdy-gurdy, an instrument as fun to listen to as it is to say.

Place, Jeffery, Eskin, Sam, Mills, Stewart, et al. Classic maritime music from Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Smithsonian Folkways, 2004. CD.
One of the many things the Smithsonian is known for is capturing and preserving unique folk music. This collection includes traditional sea songs from all over the world.



The books below were picked because they stand out in the collection for one reason or another. This is just a small sampling of the textual material we have on sea chanteys. Most of the books listed below contain lyrics and sheet music. We have a nice collection of chanteys in both French and German as well. If you are a language teacher, it might be fun to get your class to do a sing along with those.

Bullen, F.T., W.A. Arnold. Songs of sea labour (chanties). London: Orpheus Music Publishing, 1914. Print.
You might know Frank T. Bullen's name as the author of The Cruise of the Cachalot, maybe the 2nd most famous book about whaling. This little tome isn't exactly remarkable, except for the fact that it has an appreciation written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the front of the book. Many of you might not know that Sir Conan Doyle was a doctor on a whaler long before he began writing about the world's most famous detective. Here's some of what he says: "You have done real good national work in helping to preserve these old Chanties. Like yourself I have heard them many a time when I have been bending to the rhythm as we hauled up the heavy whaling boats to their davits. It is wonderful how their musical rise and fall, with the pull coming on the main note, lightened the labor. I fear in these days of steam winches that the old stamp-and-go of ten men on a rope is gone forever…to those who know and can feel, there is a smack of salt spray in every line of the rude virile verses.

Clements, Rex. Manavilins. London: Heath Cranton, 1928. Print.
Clements' book is notable because it states it is, "A muster of sea songs, as distinguished from shanties, written for the most part by seamen, and sung on board ship during the closing years of the Age of Sail, 1890-1910." The book is divided into 3 sections: historical ballads, professional songs and sentimental and humorous ditties. There is also an index of first lines which can be useful. By the way, according to Clements, the word "manavilin" comes from deep sea sailors and is akin to scraps from the captain's table.

Doerflinger, William. Shantymen and shantyboys: songs of the sailor and lumberman. New York: Macmillian Company, 1951. Print.
Doerflinger is a bit of a Richard Henry Dana character, a graduate of both Princeton and the forecastle. He is sometimes called the Dean of Shanties. This book, with notes, pictures, footnotes and more is a great treasure. Be sure to check out the back of the book which includes extra notes about not only the songs included but various shanty singers as well.

Hugill, Stan. Sea Shanties. London: Barrie &Jenkins, 1977. Print.
As stated before, Stan Hugill is the authority on sea shanties. This book and the one below are important texts in the field. This book has annotations and a preface which explains how shanties were used.

Hugill, Stan. Songs of the sea: the tales and tunes of sailors and sailing ships. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977. Print.
This includes an index, a bibliography and a discography. It was included in A Supplement (1971-1986) to Robert G. Albion's Naval & Maritime History, an Annotated Bibliography, Fourth Edition. Mystic, Conn: Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1988.

Huntington, Gale and Rick Spencer. Songs the whalemen sang. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport, 2005. Print.
Gale Huntington was many things including a shanty singer. Rick Spencer is a staff musician at Mystic Seaport. This reprint by Mystic Seaport, brings back this book which had been out of print for many years. One thing that makes it stand out, besides its strong pedigree, is that Mr. Huntington went through journals and logbooks of whalers to find songs. This sort of primary research is commendable.

Ives, Burl, and Hague, Albert. Sea songs of sailing, whaling, and fishing. New York: Ballentine Books, 1956. Print.
Yes, that Burl Ives. There's even an introduction by John Huston. Yes, that John Huston! The book includes chanteys from the movie Moby Dick and a key to the guitar chords.

Proctor, David. The Music of the waters. London: HMSO in association with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 1992. Print.
Proctor's book is more about the way cultures, sailors, traditions and voyaging combine to influence and affect sea songs then a listing of chanteys. The book is both a sociological look at seamen and a study of all music associated with the sea.

Shay, Frank. Iron men & wooden ships, deep sea shanties. London: W.M. Heinemann, 1925. Print.
This is a beautifully designed book. There are no scores, no explanations or footnotes, no other extra material except the lyrics and simply lovely illustrations. This is the sort of book one could read in an overstuffed chair and simply absorb.

Spin: the folksong magazine.
No, not that Spin magazine. Before that Spin magazine there was Spin, the Folksong Magzine. It began publishing in 1961 and ceased sometime in the early 1970's. Each issue has a feature called The Bosun's Locker, written by Stan Hugill. In the feature, Hugill takes a shanty and breaks it down historically and musically.

Walser, Robert J. Sea shanties and sailors' songs: a preliminary discography. Robert J. Walser, 1991. Print.
This discography covers albums in our collection as well as Walser's personal collection and that of his friends. Robert Walser was the Shantyman at Mystic Seaport and has a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology.


Journal articles

The below can be found either in print or in academic databases. Just ask a friendly reference librarian if you have trouble finding them.

Rose, Kelby. “Nostalgia and Imagination in Nineteenth-century Sea Shanties.” Mariner’s Mirror 98.2 (2012). Print.
From the abstract: Through a thematic analysis, this paper investigates the relationship between the structure, function, and significance of the shanty as a means for self-expression and group identity in the context of nineteenth-century merchant sailing ships.

Saunders, William. “Sailor Songs and Songs of the Sea.” The Musical Quarterly 14.3 (1928), pp. 339-357. Print.
The author believes sea shanties started with the British sailor and purports to have found the very first sea shanty, the lyrics of which are included in the article.

Schwendinger, Robert J. “The language of the sea: relationships between the language of Herman Melville and sea shanties of the 19th century.” Southern Folklore Quarterly 37.1(1973). Print.
Mr. Schwendinger was the Executive Director of the Maritime Humanities Center. He also taught The Literature of the Sea at many universities. This might be a good article to read in conjunction with the Burl Ives book.

Walsh, Brandon. "Broken songs and machine noise in Joseph Conrad's early work." Conradiana 44.2-3 (2012): 211+. Online.
This article is an interesting inclusion because it describes the lack of shanties in Conrad’s work, even though he was a sailor, indeed a captain, and would be well versed in shanties.

Whates, Harold. “The background of sea shanties.” Music & letters 18:3 (1937): 259+. Print.
The author’s goal here, in his own words is to “suggest that musicians and singers should use a little more imagination in their concert interpretations of sea shanties.” Whates believes that modern singers don’t do enough homework into the background of the songs, what the words actually mean, who would be singing them, when and why. Hopefully now with this handy pathfinder, you won’t fall victim to “slovenly distortion” as Whates puts it so elegantly.


Ranger Peter Kasin's Quick Picks

You've seen Peter's name all over this pathfinder for a good reason. Peter has been active in the world of sea music for almost 30 years now. He plays with the band Nauticus and with the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers. He leads the Chantey Sing here at Hyde Street Pier the first Saturday of every month and organizes our Sea Music Festival. The list below is what he considers to be a good start for a beginner wanting to learn the art of the chantey.

Mystic Seaport Museum. Songs of the sailor. CD and Print.

Mystic Seaport's Forebitter. American sea chanteys. CD.

Stan Hugill. Shanties from the seven seas. Print.

Holdstock and Macleod. Deepwater shanties. CD.

Killen, Louis et al. Steady as she goes. CD.


There you have it! We here at the Research Center hope you enjoy messing about in songs. If you'd like to schedule an appointment to visit us, please contact us. If you'd like to practice what you have learned, don't forget the Chantey Sing is the first Saturday of every month down at Hyde Street Pier.

by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian, Maritime Research Center, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. (Last revised, December 10, 2015)

Last updated: January 3, 2018

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