Sea shanties are a part of the great genre of work songs. Sailors used the rhythm of the songs to keep together when rowing, hauling up sails, and doing other cooperative work. They also enjoyed music during their downtime. Pirate musicians, according to documents preserved from pirate ships, only had Sunday nights off from playing music — but they also got a larger share of the booty.
The word “shanty” comes from the French “chanter,” to sing. (hear the word)
Sea shanties typically have a call and response format. The leader will sing a line, such as
“King Louis was the king of France before the revolution,”
and the rest of the sailors answer,
“Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe!”
The leader might make up new verses referring to current events or shared experiences. (The verse reference above continued with the call, “But then he got his head cut off, which spoiled his constitution!”) The response is always the same, though, so the sailors can concentrate on their work.
The video below, “Shenandoah,” is a shanty. Have students listen and identify the call and the response.
Most shanties have a strong, steady beat. Some are fast and some are slow, depending on the kind of job for which they were intended. Some shanties were sung at sea, and some were sung on rivers or canals, but they’re still called shanties.
Analyze sea shanties
Have students listen to or sing some shanties and clap along to the rhythm. As they recognize the call and response, have them sing the response when you, a volunteer, or a recording sings the call.
Some examples of sea shanties, with tunes and lyrics:
All of these are safe to play in your classroom, but sea shanties often have some pretty rough language, and we wouldn’t ask our students to do any online research on sea shanties.
For more extensive listening, check these out:
- Robert Shaw’s Sea Shanties is a collection of well arranged and well sung sea shanties that probably doesn’t sound anything like your average seagoing vessel. It’s excellent choral music, though.
- Hanging Johnny (itself a popular sea shanty) has an album of Shanties And Sea Songs with a more authentic sound. Still good music, though.
Click on either of those links and you can hear clips of lots of shanties.
Older students will enjoy this nice little essay on sea shanties illustrated with movie clips, from The Art of Manliness.
Is “The Pirate Song” a sea shanty? Watch this with your class and ask them to decide whether it could be or not.
Write a sea shanty
Once you can identify sea shanties, why not have the class write one?
- Identify a classroom chore that could be done rhythmically. Depending on the grade, that might include lining up, passing out and returning books, cleaning the board, or getting the computers turned on and booted up. It doesn’t have to be a job that currently is done rhythmically, just one that could be done that way.
- Establish a good rhythm for the job. Have students do the job while clapping out the rhythm.
- Once there is agreement on the rhythm, decide on the words for the response. The responses in the examples given so far vary a great deal:
- “Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe”
- “Away, you rolling rivers”
- “Way hey, blow the man down”
- “Bonnie laddie, hieland laddie”
- Choose a tune or make one up.
- As a class, plan out a verse (calls) or two. Then ask for volunteers to serve as the leader, coming up with a call and getting a response from the rest of the class.
- Once the class shanty is well established, use it while doing the job it was designed for. See whether it works well for other jobs, too.
- After trying it out for a while, ask the students: did the work go better with the shanty? Even students who dislike the process will probably be able to see how shanties could help sailors pull ropes together or make tedious jobs more tolerable.