Sing a Song of the Sailor: Everything You Need to Know About Sea Shanties

Sing a Song of the Sailor: Everything You Need to Know About Sea Shanties

Thursday, 20 February, 2020

Once you’ve heard a crew singing a song like ‘Roll the Old Chariot,’ you’re not likely to forget it. The melodies and rhythms of sea shanties are infectious — and they also served an important function aboard ship.


Sea shanties are work songs that were an everyday occurrence on ships during the Age of Sail — roughly 1571 to 1862. This was a time in history when international trade and naval battles were dominated by sailing ships.

A crew’s tasks were repetitive and often required the men to work together, so they sang songs to synchronize their movements and make the work more pleasant. The song leader was known as the shantyman. In addition to a big voice, he was relied upon for humorous wordplay and spicy language. The songs often told stories of life upon the sea and longing for ladies back home.

Most of the shanties took a call-and-response form — a lot like spirituals and old blues tunes. The shantyman would call out a verse, and the men would respond in unison, synchronizing their big work effort with the last syllable of their response.

By the end of the 19th century, sailing ships and their crew had been replaced by steam-power, and machines did a lot of the work onboard. That also meant the end of sea shanties as a tool on deck.

Today, festivals like the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival are keeping this old musical art alive.

In episode 6 of our podcast, dedicated to The Sea, we featured a snippet of the shanty ‘Roll the Old Chariot.’ Here’s the song in its entirety, sung by David Coffin and a group of people at the 2010 Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival.

And more sea shanties by various artists in case you — as we — cannot get enough:

Here are the 10 Manliest Sea Shanties according to The Art of Manliness.

Top image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

From a luxury cruise to battered warships and open seas to exotic ports, the ocean is a compelling setting for stories of big adventure, quiet moments, human vs. nature, and the drama sparked by close quarters aboard ship.
On 21 November 1922, a luxury liner embarked on a 130-day cruise around the world to 22 ports: Yokohoma and Shanghai, Rangoon and Bombay, Egypt, Cuba, and Naples. This is the true story of that grand adventure.
It's never smooth sailing when the Honorable Phyrne Fisher is involved — but it is always a lot of dangerous and delicious fun. Dine on this delightful shrimp salad while catching up on Phryne's high seas adventures.
The Tom Collins is the ultimate highball, a combo of gin, simple syrup, lemon, and bubbly water. This classic is effervescent and refreshing — the ideal go-along for a literary thriller set on a retro luxury liner.
It's anchors aweigh on these literary voyages that promise excitement of both the physical and emotional variety. You'll meet a lady pirate, a WWII freighter captain, the passengers of a luxury liner, Ishmael, and more.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.