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.
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.
Kasin, Peter, Adrianowicz, Richard, Boyd, Isabella. With shipmates all around. Handspikes Music, 2010. 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.
National Maritime Museum Festival of the Sea. Songs of the sea. Smithsonian Folkways, 2000. 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.
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.
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.
Doerflinger, William. Shantymen and shantyboys: songs of the sailor and lumberman. New York: Macmillian Company, 1951. Print.
Hugill, Stan. Sea Shanties. London: Barrie &Jenkins, 1977. Print.
Hugill, Stan. Songs of the sea: the tales and tunes of sailors and sailing ships. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977. Print.
Huntington, Gale and Rick Spencer. Songs the whalemen sang. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport, 2005. Print.
Ives, Burl, and Hague, Albert. Sea songs of sailing, whaling, and fishing. New York: Ballentine Books, 1956. Print.
Proctor, David. The Music of the waters. London: HMSO in association with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 1992. Print.
Shay, Frank. Iron men & wooden ships, deep sea shanties. London: W.M. Heinemann, 1925. Print.
Spin: the folksong magazine.
Walser, Robert J. Sea shanties and sailors' songs: a preliminary discography. Robert J. Walser, 1991. Print.
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 PicksYou'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