Until recently, I was a total stranger to sea shanties. My taste in music has usually veered towards the classical, my favourites being Frédéric Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s piano concertos. But after listening to a few shanties, I have become a fan. These work songs were originally sung by sailors on merchant sailing ships. They kept the men in time when performing certain tasks together such as hauling a rope with a capstan (pictured above). They were also a form of entertainment, an antidote to the loneliness and drudgery of shipboard life.

Sea shanties are thought to trace back to as early as the mid-1400s (read more here). But they are still very much alive today — performed in maritime festivals, music halls and pubs. Some have found their way into animated pirate films and video games to become part of popular culture. Here’s a taste of this unique musical genre:

Randy Dandy Oh (Capstan Shanty) – Johnny Collins

Sea shanties typically have an alternating solo and chorus, creating a lively rhythm that echoes the movement of the sea and sailors hard at work. One is tempted to sing along to this old tune as performed by the English folk singer, Johnny Collins (10 May 1938 – 6 July 2009).

    Now we are ready to head for the Horn
    Way, hay, roll an’ go!
    Our boots an’ our clothes boys are all in the pawn
    To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

    Heave a pawl, O heave away
    Way, hay, roll an’ go!
    The anchor’s on board an’ the cable’s all stored
    To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

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Man the stout caps’n an’ heave with a will
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
Soon we’ll be drivin’ her ‘way down the hill
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

Heave a pawl, O heave away
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
The anchor’s on board an’ the cable’s all stored
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

Soon we’ll be warping her out through the locks
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
Where the pretty young gals all come down in their flocks
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

Heave a pawl, O heave away
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
The anchor’s on board an’ the cable’s all stored
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

We’re outward bound for Vallipo Bay
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
Get crackin’, m’ lads, ’tis a hell o’ a way!
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

Heave a pawl, O heave away
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
The anchor’s on board an’ the cable’s all stored
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

Heave a pawl, O heave away
Way, hay, roll an’ go!
The anchor’s on board an’ the cable’s all stored
To be rollicking randy dandy-O!

The Black Irish Band perform the classic, Drunken Sailor

Funny and rambunctious, this old shanty could probably be sung with more gusto if one were slightly drunk (but not soused to the eyeballs).

Spanish Ladies – The Longest Johns

Spanish Ladies is an old British navy song about sailors bidding farewell to the women of Spain and sailing back home to old England. The Longest Johns, a Bristol-based a cappella band, render it with such charm and clarity that one can imagine oneself on board the ship being described.

    Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies,
    Farewell and adieu all you ladies of Spain;
    For we’ve received orders to sail for old England;
    And perhaps we shall never more see you again.

    Chorus:
    We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors,
    We’ll range and we’ll roam over all the salt seas,
    Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England,
    From Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues. 

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  Then we hove our ship to, with the wind at sou’-west, my boys,
  Then we hove our ship to, for to strike soundings clear;
  Then we filled the main topsail and bore right away, my boys,
  And straight up the Channel of old England did steer.

  (Chorus)

   So the first land we made it is called the Deadman,
  Next Ram Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and the Wight;
  We sailed hy Beachy, by Fairly and Dungeness,
  And then bore away for the South Foreland light.

  (Chorus)

  Now the signal it was made for the Grand Fleet to anchor,
  All on the Downs that night for to meet;
  Then stand by your stoppers, see clear your shank-painters,
  Haul all your clew garnets, stick out tacks and sheets.

  (Chorus)

   Now let every man drink up his full bottle,
  Let every man drink up his full bowl;
  For we will be jolly and drown melancholy,
  With a health to each jovial and true-hearted soul.

  (Chorus)

Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate 

From the 2000 album “Roast Beef of Old England”, this traditional song performed by American songwriter Jerry Bryant and the Starboard Mess band has a cheerful melody and an endearing message many mariners can relate to.

~Barista Uno

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