Songs sung by seafarers to give their mundane chores a semblance of pleasure and merriment, in the 1800s were called as sea shanties. The root origin of the word shanty isn’t clarified. According to the claims made by some sources, the root of the word is French – Chanter – educed from which, was its latter-day evolution of the term shanty.
However while the evolution of chanter to shanty is accepted widely across the world, in the then-modern American marine lingo, the term chanter was transformed to chantey, as a way of separating contextual connections with the British jargon.
Parlance Usage of the Sailor Songs
The usage of a sea shanty is believed to have started as a way of combating the monotonous nature of the arduous marine requirements. Though, contrary to people’s interpretation, these songs were used only when the seafarers were working or in the process of fulfilling certain prescribed tasks, instead of being used a tool for whiling away time aboard a vessel.
The lack of more modern gadgetries and equipments, both in the vessels’ operating systems and also for the sailors’ entertainment led to the conception and existence of such sailor songs. In this context, it needs to be noted that the sea songs incorporated more of the tone of the singers rather than the maintaining of a song’s melody. Similarly, it wasn’t expected of seafarers to possess really great singing skills, as the sole purpose of these songs was to maintain a unique line of command which would help the seafarers carry out their work in a more orderly manner. Likewise, the melody and the lyrics of every song used to be an impromptu conjuring instead of a planned and detailed composition.
- The ditty’s lyrics and tune used to follow the pattern and the movement of the chore
- Right from the movement of the horizontal windlasses to the raising of the winches and sails, each chore had a sea shanty composed and belted out by the sailors
- The integration of sea shanties in the day-to-day lives of the sailors was an important feature of the marine days of the 19th century
Apart from tagging and composing verses while carrying out sailor duties, seafarers also used sea songs as a way to reconnect with their kith and kin left behind on land. Such sailor songs were different from sea shanties and were called as fo’c'sle, the tag derived from the housing accommodations of the seafarers on the vessel. These songs were poignant and highly emotional, and helped the sailors to develop an additional sense of belonging in the vast ocean.
Decline of Sea Shanties Culture
The development of vessel construction and structuring technology paved the way for more streamlined vessels. The resultant reduction in time and effort taken by the seafarers to carry out even the simplest of the routine tasks led to the decline of the sea shanties towards the 1900s.
Though, presently there is no active utilisation of sea shanties, there exists a vast repertoire of such sailor songs collected and presented to the world by sea shanty enthusiasts. Through the videos and even though the available lyrics put down, one can try and connect with these song marvels, whose actual glimpse the maritime community will never be able to hear or visualise.