The other day, while I was browsing our collection, I happened upon the book American Sea Songs and Chanteys from the Days of Iron Men and Wooden Ships. Being a lover of all musical expression, I had to pick the book up and take a peek. The first thing that jumped out to me was that “chanteys” were placed in their own category separating them from “ballads” and “songs.” This made me wonder: what makes a chantey a chantey anyways? Further still: what separates a good chantey from a bad chantey?
Well, first things first, according to The Oxford Book of Sea Songs, chanteys were songs “sung to accompany certain specific tasks, and were very much sailor-made” (xxiv). The editor, Roy Palmer, explains that chanteys were basically used to keep the sailors working in unison; think “row row row your boat,” but with whips and shackles.
As it turns out, finding a “good” chantey is a much more difficult task. But I did pick out one example to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
This cheer em’ up is titled “Hanging Johnny”:
They call me Hanging Johnny,
They say I hang for money,
So hang, boys, hang!
First I hung my mother,
Then I hung my brother.
I’ll hang you all together,
We’ll hang for better weather,
So hang, boys, hang! (Shay, 54)
I would include more, but they all pretty much follow the same structure. I guess hoisting sails and lifting anchors gives one little time to explore complex rhyme schemes. Anyways, if you are ever looking for a few songs for that family road trip, drop by and check out one of our books on the original traveling music: chanteys!
Palmer, Roy (ed). The Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Shay, Frank. American Sea Songs and Chanteys from the days of Iron Men and Wooden Ships. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1948.