The Black Origins of Sea Shanties
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
The past year has seen a huge renewed interest in sea songs worldwide, largely due to a traditional New Zealand forebitter 'Wellerman' becoming a number one chart success on both sides of the Atlantic.
The year has also seen the publication of several new books on sea shanties. These include Gibb Schreffler's 'Boxing the Compass', Gerry Smyth's 'Sailor Song' and my own trilogy 'Haul Away', 'Heave Away', 'Sail Away'.
Research is beginning to show that what we have always thought about the history of sea shanties (being predominanty of white British origin) is not true and that many (possibly most) of them have their origins in black work songs, plantation songs and even slave songs from the American South and the West Indies.
I think a look into the origins of these wonderful songs is long overdue.
Sea shanties, as we know them today, are very much a 19th Century phenomenon. They were sung by sailors aboard merchant vessels (not Navy ships where they were discouraged) and had their heyday from the 1830’s to the 1880’s’ However they were still being collected from oral sources well into the 20th Century.
They must have existed since ancient times and in fact are mentioned in print from ancient Greek manuscripts to texts from the 15th and 16th Century. There is little mention of them in the 17th Century and none at all in the 18th Century. The reason for this is almost certainly warfare.
From 1700 to 1815 Britain was almost constantly at war and hence singing aboard ship would not be encouraged for fear of alerting any enemy ships. British merchant ships were also overmanned at this time for protection from piracy. During the same period, however, America was only at war for about 10 years (1775-1783 and 1812-1814) so shanties may have continued to develop on that side of the Atlantic.
What we know about shanties we have learned from written sources giving 'eye-witness' and ‘ear-witness’ accounts of their being sung at sea. These were published in books or magazine articles in the UK and USA. Apart from the ancient texts mentioned above the earliest reference to shanty singing is in 1811 in Robert Hay’s memoirs ‘Landsman Hay’. On a voyage to Jamaica in the merchant vessel ‘Edward’ he heard negroes singing the shanties: ‘OH, HURO, ME BOYS’ and ‘GROG TIME OF DAY’ (both now sadly lost).
In 1815 Captain James Carr descibed 'cotton-screwing' whilst loading a ship from Charleston to Liverpool: ''...for five days I had four pair of jackscrews and four gangs of five men at each at work on board ship stowing cotton - I was in the midst of them - it often happened that they all had their throats open at the same time as loud as they could bawl...''
Carr gives specimens of the 'African work-songs' he heard in Charleston with choruses of 'HIGHLAND A', 'HOORA, HOORA, SING TALIO', CAESAR BOY,CAESAR' (later collected in Newcastle, Nevis by Roger Abrahamas) and 'HUZZA MY JOLLY BOYS, TIS GROG TIME A DAY' (this last probably as heard by Robert Hay four years earlier). Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia were the main cotton ports at this time but in the 1820's Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Loisiana superceded them.
Captain J.E. Alexander reported on a trip to British Guiana in 1831 ('Transatlantic Sketches') that he heard negroes at the paddles of canoes singing ' VELLY WELL YANKEE, VELLY WELL OH!' (BEAR AWAY YANKEE?) and 'DE BOTTLEY OH! DE BOTTLEY OH!' (SO EARLY IN THE MORNING THE SAILOR LIKES HIS BOTTLE-O).
Other travellers witnessed such scenes abd reported them in their 'journals'. In 'The West India Sketch Book' in 1834, Trelawney Wentworth descibed negro rowers let by an 'improvisatore' as follows: 'The subject matter of the song was as discursive and lengthy as Chevy Chase;and it showed an aptitude at invention on the part of the leader' he gives the song 'FINE TIME O'DAY' perhaps related to 'GROG TIME OF DAY'.
In ‘Two Years Before the Mast’ Richard Dana heard shanties sung aboard the American ships ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Alert’ between 1834 and 1836 where he says: 'the crew was a mixture of ‘English, Scotch, German, French, African, South Sea Islands plus a few Boston and Cape Cod boys’ (a very multi-ethnic crew!). He mentions the singing of 10 shanties, all now seemingly lost apart from ‘CHEERILY MEN’, 'CHEER UP SAM, ‘ROLL THE OLD CHARIOT’ and ‘ROUND THE CORNER (SALLY?)’ the last three of these being of negro extraction.
Captain Frederick Marryat, author of the semi-autobiographical novel ‘Mr. Midshipman Easy’ (1836) heard black crew members singing shanties aboard a ‘packet’ he sailed in from England to America including ‘SALLY BROWN’. Also, the naval historian Leonard G. Carr Laughton in ‘Shantying and Shanties’ wrote: ‘In the 1830’s: ''loading of cotton on to ships gave seamen the opportunity to listen to slave songs and take them to sea as shanties''. He cites ‘WESTERN OCEAN’ (AMELIA WHERE YER BOUND TO) and ‘KNOCK A MAN DOWN’ (BLOW THE MAN DOWN?)’’ as examples.
In 1838 in Mobile, Englishman P.H.Gosse observed screwmen singing: ''The men keep the most perfect time by means of their songs. These ditties, though nearly meaningless, have much music in them and as all join in the perpetually recurring chorus, a rough harmony is produced, by no means unpleasing''.
Gosse gives a version of 'FIRE MARENGO' with lyrics that evoke the War of 1812 and a chorus line of 'Fire the Ringo, Fire away!' and mentions General Jackson and 'black cocks flying away to Canada' to escape slavery.
A Boston sailor. F.Stanhope Hill saw cotton-screwing in Mobile in 1844 observing: ''In the process of stowing by the stevedores, with very powerful jackscrews, each operated by a gang of four men, one of them the 'shantier', as he was called. this man's sole duty was to lead in the rude songs, largely improvised, to the music of which his companions screwed the bales into their places. a really good shantier received larger pay than the other men in the gang, although his work was much less laborious''.
Another American sailor, Charles Low, on his ship's arrival in London in 1845 observed: 'the crew was made up of the hardest kind of men, they were called 'hoosiers', working in New Orleans or Mobile during the winter at stowing ships with cotton, and in the summer sailing in the packet ships. They were all good chanty men, that is, they could all sing at their work''. This skill transferred to efficient shipboard labour pracice: ''We could reef and hoist all three topsails at once, with a different song for each one''. So, Low concluded, it was the seamen who had experienced the work of cotton-screwing ashore who adapted the practice to shipboard tasks. The 'hoosiers' were, in effect, white men incorpoated into doing black men's work and singing black men's songs.
The American journalist Charles Nordhoff in 1848 observed in Mobile: ''Screw gangs consisted of a song-leader or 'chanty man 'and four men who timed their exertions in turning the jackcrews to songs called 'chants'. Singing or 'chanting' as it is called, is an invariable accompaniment to working in cotton, and many of the screw gangs have an endless collection of songs, rough and uncouth, both in words and melody''.
Nordhoff continues: ''The foreman is the 'chantey-man' who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus. The chants have more of a rhyme than a reason to them''. Giving some examples he explains that : ''these samples will give the reader an idea of what capstan and cotton songs , or 'chants' are''. The implication here being that sailor's capstan shanties and black cotton-screwing songs were more or less the same or, at least. greatly overlapping.
In 1886 James Taft Hatfield was a passenger on the three-masted barque ‘Ahkera’ from Pensacola, Florida to Nice, France. He recounted that the crew consisted entirely of: ‘Black men from Jamaica among which several acted as shantyman'. He requested the shanty-singers to begin the songs again and again until he could note the exact timing and melody. From them he obtained ‘RIO GRANDE’, ‘BLOW THE MAN DOWN’, ‘RANZO’, ‘WHISKEY JOHNNY’, ‘SHAKE HER UP' and ‘WE’RE ALL BOUND TO GO’ as well as three previously unknown shanties ‘SHINY-O’, ‘NANCY RHEE’ and 'WAY DOWN LOW’. These were given to the ‘Journal of American Folklore’ by his daughter in 1946.
Captain Frank Shaw in ‘The Splendour of the Seas’ says: ‘Many songs are undoubtedly of American origin and some of plantation origin, down to a fine point’ giving as an example ‘ROLL THE COTTON DOWN’. He continues: ‘After harvest … slaves were most costly to support in the winter months. The owners found a solution to this recurring problem. They hired them out as crews for America’s growing mercantile marine’.
William Livingstone Alden in ‘Sailors’Songs’ also concluded that: ‘many chanties had their origins in black music’.
Of course, many of our shanties are European in origin particularly from the British Isles. However, it must be acknowledged that a very large portion, possibly the majority, hail from black African-American and West Indian sources. These were predominantly slave songs, plantation songs and songs of black stevedores and hoosiers loading ships manned by white sailors who copied and developed them: ‘Since the blacks used their own jabber … the borrowers fitted their own words to the catchy tunes … often ribald and obscene’ (Frank Shaw). It seems increasingly obvious that shanties have arisen from and devolved from black work songs. Indeed, the American folklorist Stuart Frank remarked that: 'The practice of shantying on shipboard is descended from West African work songs’.
Many 20th Century collectors including the folklorist Alan Lomax have ‘discovered’ pulling shanties from black sources in Florida, Georgia Sea Islands and the Bahamas including such favourites as ‘SAILBOAT MALARKEY’ and ‘LONG SUMMERS DAY’ (both collected from Frederick McQueen on Andros, Bahamas). Also, the shanties of the black menhaden fishermen from the USA’s East Coast (mainly Virginia and North Carolina) have yielded such gems as ‘JOHNSON GIRLS’, DRINKING THAT WINE’ and 'WON'T YOU HELP ME TO RAISE 'EM'.
There have also been several studies of ‘Caribbean’ shanties, the best known being the collection of essays ‘Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore’ by Roger David Abrahams in the early 1960’s. He noted that the use of shanties was ‘everywhere’ in the Caribbean and not just limited to ship-board work. Such shanties as ‘JOHN DEAD’ and ‘BLACKBIRD GET UP’ have become very popular with modern shanty singers from this collection. Abrahams recorded 'Foc'sle Songs and Shanties' with Paul Clayton and Dave Van Ronk for Folkways in 1959 and collected shanties with Lomax on St. Kitts in 1962
Our greatest shanty collector Stan Hugill ascribed about 120 of the shanties from his ‘bible’ ‘Shanties from the Seven Seas’ (1961) to Black American and Caribbean origins. These were mostly collected from his West Indian informants Harding the Barbadian, Tobago Smith and ‘Harry Lauder’ from the Island of St. Lucia. He even tried to imitate the yelps and ‘hitches’ these black shantymen put into their singing of the shanties. Many of these had never appeared in a shanty collection before including 'ESSEQUIBO RIVER', ROLL,BOYS.ROLL' and 'WHERE AM I TO GO'. He also collected the great favourite South Sea Island shanty 'JOHN KANAKA' which he claimed was: 'one of a body of Poynesian shanties'. Stan also made frequent reference to his experience of 'chequerboard crews' (one watch black and one watch white) where shanty-swapping must have occurred. One shanty he paricularly attributed to 'chequerboard crews' was the tops'l halyard shanty 'HAUL 'ER AWAY' or 'SALLY RACKETT' learnt from Harding.
Many of Stan's shanties had previously been put in print by British collectors without any mention of their negro origin. These include 'BULLY IN THE ALLEY' (Cecil Sharp), 'COME ROLL ME OVER' (John Masefield), 'HILO, BOYS, HILO' (Richard Runciman Terry) and 'PAY ME THE MONEY DOWN' (Laura Alexandrine Smith). Of course, Hugill was a shantyman himself and shipped as a common sailor in the fo’c’sle. Most of the other collectors did not have this experience.
The only other major British collector who worked as a common seaman and shantyman was the author Frank Thomas Bullen who along with his friend W.F.Arnold wrote ‘Songs of Sea Labour’ in 1914 just six months before his death. He writes of his first sea voyage in 1869 at the age of 11 and hearing his first shanty ‘MUDDER DINAH’ when discharging cargo in the Demerara River, Georgetown (Guyana).
‘All the wonder I could spare was given to the amazing negroes who, not content with flinging their bodies about as they hove at the winch, sang as if their lives depended upon maintaining the volume of sound at the same time … I have never seen any men working harder or more gaily than negroes when they were allowed to sing’. ‘Being extremely fond of singing I became most anxious to learn it, so I asked one of our two boat-boys to teach me. Had I offered him a sovereign he could not have been more delighted. He set about his pleasant task at once but was very soon pulled up by his mate who demanded in indignant tones what he meant by teaching ‘dat buckra chile (white boy) dem rude words’. I concentrated my attention upon learning the songs I heard (every day for about a month). Bullen places ‘MUDDER DINAH’ as number one in his collection followed by other negro shanties he learnt: ‘SISTER SEUSAN’, ‘TEN STONE’, ‘SHENANDOAH’, ‘SALLY BROWN’, ‘WALK ALONG ROSEY’, 'LIZA LEE', ‘LOWLANDS AWAY’ and ‘POOR LUCY ANNA’
As for the rest of the 40 shanties in his collection Bullen states ‘the great majority of these tunes undoubtedly emanated from the negroes of the Antilles (West Indies) and the Southern states: ''a most tuneful race if ever there was one, men moreover who seemed unable to pick up a ropeyarn without a song’'. Unfortunately, the well respected poet and shanty collector Cicely Fox Smith dismissed Bullen saying he 'had n****r on the brain'. Her American contemporary Joanna Colcord (both were born in 1882) had a different opinion commenting in 'Roll and Go' (1924) that: 'the American Negroes were the best singers that ever lifted a shanty aboard ship'.
The only other major American collector to credit African-American work-songs as a major contributor to shanties was James Madison Carpenter who did most of his collecting in the British Isles in 1928 and 1929 using a wax cylinder recording machine. He wrote in The New York Times: 'These working choruses, frequenty taken from the Negro labourers of different countries, especially the Southern States, existed in large numbers, for the Negro required a song to lighten his work'. 'Indeed, it is not surprising to find a fairly large proportion of the chanteys coming from the American South. Chanteymen were naturally quick to press into service aboard ship the Negro gang-work songs with their droll fun, languorous cadences, and well-worn rhythm'.
Carpenter's huge collection of 98 different shanties from nearly 400 recordings gave us black shanties such as 'DOWN TRINIDAD', 'LONDON JULIE', 'PULL DOWN BELOW' and 'NOTHIN' BUT A HUMBUG'. The first of these was collected from Richard Warner in Cardiff in 1928. Warner had first shipped in 1877 and learned this song on S.S.Bananzo in a sugarlog station in Barbados.The last two were among fifteen collected in 1928 in South Wales from Rees Baldwin who told Carpenter he had learned shanties from 'Negro singers in Savannah and New Orleans'. Carpenter describes many of the shanties he collected as 'of negro origin'.
Sadly, apart from Hugill and Bullen, no other major British collector seems to acknowledge the black origins of some of the shanties they collected. Perhaps these collectors were products of their class and social upbringing but most seemed keen to promote the shanties as part of an English folklore heritage. Consequently the revivals in shanty singing and folk singing that occurred in the 1920's and 1960's assumed this to be the case. With the new worldwide revival in interest in shanties that has begun it is important that we portray them as 'world music' with a multi-ethnic background with particular emphasis on the black origins of many of them.