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Like so many words in modern English, there is much debate over where the phrase sea shanty originated.
Most folks will tell you that the word shanty comes from the word chant. Claiming they started as working chants to keep time. Others will say it came from the French word for song, chanson, pronounced “shanson.”
Whatever its origin may be, the sea shanty was found aboard working ships more than 100 years ago as often as one would find an anchor or a sail. A sea shanty is a particular type of song sung aboard ship. It is used to make hard work pass more quickly, or to help the crew move in unison when shifting a heavy weight.
There are four broad categories of sea shanties:
• Long-haul shanties are intended for lengthy, strenuous work such as turning a capstan winch to haul the anchor up off the sea floor.
• Short-haul shanties are used for quick work like hauling in the corner of a sail.
• Forecastle shanties are named for the forward-most quarters in the ship where the crew lived. These songs tell stories to pass the time and for the sheer enjoyment of singing.
• Finally, there are pilot shanties, a pilot being someone who guides a ship through a tricky harbor. Pilot shanties made remembering how to navigate into a particular bay or harbor a little bit easier.
While tunes like “What Would You Do With a Drunken Sailor” are well known, Florida has a few shanties distinctly our own. Dr. Benjamin Strobel, a friend to John James Audubon, wrote down the earliest known Florida shanty in 1830. “The Wrecker’s Song” was sung in Key West. Wreckers were professional salvagers and rescuers of ships that ran into the coral reefs common in the shallow water of the keys.
Another distinctly Florida shanty is “Roll the Woodpile Down.” It falls into an odd category of songs that follow the rhythm and patterns of a sea shanty, but were used ashore near boats and ships. In this case, the song likely originated with African-American work crews who loaded wood onto the steam-powered river boats. The shanty probably came from somewhere near Apalachicola.
Apalachicola, being in Florida but near Georgia (the song mentions the Georgia line) and connected to a lengthy river system, had a large amount of steamboat traffic in the latter 19th century.
What can be said for certain about sea shanties is this: They change, they travel and they are rarely sung the same way twice. The words change because they weren’t traditionally written down, but instead remembered by the crew, and in some cases by, a specialist called a shanty man on large working ships. A shanty man would lead in singing and often changed the words to fit the ship, the crew or the mood.
Over the years, old words were replaced with new words, or foreign words were substituted with words that were known.
A great example is a sea shanty about Napoleon where Bellerophon, the ship that took him to exile, becomes Billy Ruffian in an attempt to make it fit the English language.
If you go looking for words to sea shanties, it is also good to remember they were used by working folks in a different time and the lyrics are not always as genteel as we might expect today.
John Beale, education and volunteer coordinator for the Florida Maritime Museum, lectures on various topics related to Florida’s maritime history, and he teaches traditional skills at the Florida Maritime Museum.