Sea Shanties and American Music

For the latest Will Rees, I researched sea shanties (or chanties) thoroughly. I’d expected to use that information more than I did. I actually only mention the sea shanties in passing. That’s what happens when one researches something for a work of historical fiction. Either some of the information isn’t used at all or you need more and more of it.

Although I knew of the shanty only as a subset of folk music, it was important for the loading and unloading of cargo from merchant ships.  It is thought that one leg of the shanty’s back ground comes from British ‘chants’. That makes sense to me. Even the language implies a connection.But although other countries had work songs, sea shanties were primarily an American phenomenon.

Shanties were created here. Well, if one strand is the British ‘chant’, where does the rest of it come from?  Where else in our history do rhythmic work songs play such a big role? Answer: the slaves. Contemporary accounts frequently describe the slaves and their songs. The slaves, to the eyes of the white who observed them, were so happy they sang’. The casual condescending racism of the descriptions make a modern sensibility shudder.

However, like the work songs sung by the slaves, the shanties include the same kind of rhythmic repeats necessary to keep everyone on the same beat Keeping everyone together as they pull lines or shift bales is efficient. Since there were so many black sailors at that time (with a name of their own: the Black Tars) it makes sense the rhythmic underpinning of the shanties probably sprang from the same source as the rounds sung by the slaves: i.e. African music.