Shanties and Forebitters
It’s a romantic scene: tall ships, with full-dressed sails billowed and roaring, cutting through tropical blue seas; swarthy men bellowing wild songs as they haul on the ropes. A romantic scene, but not entirely accurate. Most sailors were reluctant, illiterate and coarse and the vessels they struggled to keep afloat were cramped, unstable and full of disease.
There is some tangible evidence of those reflective, poetic, sensitive sailors who carved, scrimshawed and even embroidered their deepest longings into wood, whalebone and canvas in stuffy fo'c’sles during the long months at sea. But the huge collection of sea-songs left to us reveals men who were not only masters of their vernacular culture but also fine poets and composers who felt more at ease holding an oar or a capstan in their hands than a pen. Songs of the sea, written under sail, reflect their creators – some are as rough as a teak board, others as gentle as sunset on a flood tide, with lyrics of surprising wisdom spliced onto evocative salty tunes.
Shanties were work songs, written to get men to pull together so that the job in hand would go easier. Forebitters were diversionary songs, sung to ease the mind and make a hard life tolerable. They usually had fixed texts telling a coherent story, whereas shanties often included whatever words floated into the shantyman’s head in the course of the job. They were made up of scraps and might be expanded to 40 verses or cut to 4 according to the task in hand.
As to the singers, some would add plenty of embellishments or “hitches” as the crew called them; others sang undecorated. Some sang with free, hardly measurable rhythm, others were bang on the beat. Apart from the crew joining in the choruses with gusto and singing full and plain and regular in order to pull together, there were no rules. Some were sung in harmony, most were not.
As so few rules exist, Shanties and Forebitters are virtually indestructible. They can withstand any treatment and abuse… except the genteel and the quaint!
Historically, shanties were usually not sung ashore. Today, they are performed as popular music. Shanty choirs, often large choral groups that perform only sea shanties, are popular in Europe, particularly Poland and the Netherlands, but also countries such as Germany and Norway. In English-speaking countries, sea shanties are comparatively less popular as a separate genre and tend to be performed by smaller groups as folk music rather than in a choral style. They are also sung by some folk music clubs as a social pastime, not for performance. A medley of sea shanties performed by classical orchestra, Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs, is a popular component of the Last Night of the Proms in Britain.
Although the "days of the tall ships" are over, the shanty song style is still used for new musical compositions. Well known examples include the Stan Rogers song, "Barrett's Privateers," the Steve Goodman song, "Lincoln Park Pirates," and the theme song for the television show SpongeBob SquarePants (a version of "Blow the Man Down"). Even the song "Reise, Reise" by the Neue Deutsche Horte band Rammstein is based on a shanty, "Reise, Reise". The Mariner's Revenge Song by The Decemberists is also said to be in a sea shanty style.