Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ghostly Sea Shanty

Sea shanties are a type of work song that once was commonly sung to accompany labor aboard sailing vessels. Actually, shanties were chanted more often than sung.

The word shanty or chanty was used first in the mid 19th century in America. These chants were often used on merchant ships before, during, and after the Civil War.

Shanties reflected the popular music or folk songs of the time. They were sung on board when a task required a coordinated group effort, such as a pulling or pushing action--when weighing anchor or setting sail.


African American slave songs that were sung while cotton was being loaded aboard vessels in the South influenced shanties. Here is one example.

Up a loft this yard must go.--refrain
Up a loft from down below.--refrain
Were you ever down in Mobile Bay?--refrain
A-hoisting * cotton by the day?--refrain

* The term "a-screwing" was used in another version.

One writer recounts a shanty being sung aboard a ship he traveled on in 1860.

“Every man sprang to duty--a cheerful shanty roared out and was heard above the gail. The cable held very hard and when it surged over, the windlass, sent the men flying about the deck . . .

The men now soaked and sweating yelled out hoarsely, their chant.”

Another writer’s description also reflects a shanty being chanted during bad weather.

“The wind was whistling through the rigging, loose ropes flying about, loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given and rapidly executed, and the sailors “singing out” at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains.”

Working the capstan

One sea shanty that was sung, The Ghostly Crew, reflects a wide held belief among seamen that if a vessel returns or crosses the spot where at one time sailors on board a vessel fell overboard and drowned--the ghosts of these lost sailors will climb aboard the passing ship.

I’ve tossed aboard on Georges, been fishing in the Bay,
Out south in early summer--must anywhere will pay.
I’ve been in different vessels to the Western Bank and Grand,
Likewise in herring vessels that sail to Newfoundland . . .

One night as we were sailing, we were off land away--
I shall never forget until my dying day--
It was in our dim dark watches I felt a chilly dread
Come over me as though I heard one calling from the dead.

Right o’er our rail came climbing, all silent, one by one,
A dozen dripping sailors. Just wait till I am done.
Their faces pale and sea-wet shone ghostly through the night.
Each fellow took his station as if he had a right.

They moved about before us till land did heave in sight--
Or, rather I should say so--the Light of Tower Light.
And then those ghostly sailors moved to the rail straightaway
And vanished like the misty scud before the break of day.

Then we sailed into harbor, and every mother’s son
Can tell you this same story, the same as I have done.
The trip before the other, we were on Georges then,
We ran down another vessel and sank her and her men.

Those were the same poor fellows--I hope to God rest their souls--
That our old craft ran under that night on Georges Shoals.
Well now my song is ended, it is just as I say,
I do believe in spirits--since that time anyway.

“The Banks” is a large underwater plateau in the Atlantic Ocean, which stretch 1,100 miles from Nantucket to the east and south of Newfoundland. These are the most famous cod fishing grounds in the world.

“Georges Bank” lies off Cape Cod. The “Western Bank” lies southeast of Nova Scotia. The “Grand Bank” lies south and east of Newfoundland.

Here is an effective modern twist on the traditional sea shanty Drunken Sailor.

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