Sea Songs

by Rika Ruebsaat
and Jon Bartlett

I had hoped to deal with all songs of the sea in one introductory paper, but the topic is so vast, and has generated so many songs, that I have chosen to split it into three papers. This piece only deals with sea songs as such. Shanties, the work songs of the sea, will be addressed in a later piece. Most of the background material here, though, is relevant, since the heyday of the shanty was c. 1820-1870. The shanty paper will also address routes, voyages and cargoes. Songs from the whaling industry are similarly dealt with in a later piece.

The songs that have come down to us in a traditional form date mostly from the hundred-year period 1770 to 1870. Before that period, ships mostly were ungainly and slow, snugging down for the night by heaving to, and hugging the coastline by day, with crews the later days would regard as extremely large. After that period, steam begins to make serious inroads into sail; and crews mostly worked below deck in engine rooms.

The early years of this hundred-year period were the years of the industrial revolution, with the beginnings of modern economies, a huge growth in trade, and a growing emphasis on speed and efficiency. The social cost for these was borne mostly by the crews.

clip of a sailor carrying a bucket of tarThe songs were predominantly from the merchant marine, though there were a significant number with events of the Napoleonic Wars as subjects. The typical song of this type dealt with a cruise and a successful action against a French ship or fleet (such as “The Good Luck Ship”). Some songs came from the mutinies at Spithead and at the Nore in 1798 ( “Brave Parker”), and many more described the press gang’s activities ashore (such as “Ratcliffe Highway”). The other major source of sea songs of the period was the American War of Independence. The typical song here was again a ship–to–ship battle (such as “The Chesapeake and the Shannon”). Background reading for those interested in this period would be excellent books by C.S. Forster of Hornblower fame, and Patrick O’Brian, whose long–running series featuring a captain and his ship’s doctor (and musical partner) ended only with his recent death. Other military events in our time period include the mid–century Crimean War and the War between the States, and these two also generated songs (such as “Manura Manya” and “The Alabama”).

The role played by the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars was partly responsible for the glamour associated with the sea, which merchant seamen also shared in; beginning with such hoary art–songs as “Hearts of Oak” and “Rule Britannia”, the prevailing shore song about sailors speaks of “the hardships we undergo” and the daring and skill necessary, for example, to keep a ship off a lee shore in a storm.

three masted sailing shipThe merchant marine following the Wars was greatly influenced by changes in ship design. Because of the need for speed, ships became longer and sleeker. Such “clipper” ships could clip days off the voyage, and the fastest of them, such as the Sovereign of the Seas, could give a BC Ferry at 25 knots a run for its money. To achieve this kind of speed meant a vast spread of canvas aloft. The pressure of the wind on this sail area, however, tended to open up the seams of these wooden–hulled vessels, requiring 24–hour pumping. This, together with the need to “crack on”, brought about the watch system, of four hours each. The crew, apart from the “idlers” (cook, carpenter, sailmaker, etc.) were divided into two watches, called “port” (headed by the 1st mate) and “starboard” (headed by the 2nd mate). Each watch was responsible for all nautical work during their watch — taking tricks at the wheel, pumping the ship, scrubbing the deck, setting and taking in sail, etc.). The watch between midnight and 4am was split into two “dog” watches, so that a sailor wouldn’t always be on the same watch. While one watch worked, the other slept, mended clothes, or sang; but when the mate on watch shouted “all hands on deck!” it was because a job had come up bigger than a single watch could handle.

The mate features in many songs of this period, and could make the sailor’s life into a living hell:

Oh, there’s our old mate, oh you all know him well,
When he comes upon deck, he cuts a great swell
With a “Give a hand here, boys” or a “Lend a hand, there!”
Down on the lee gangway, you oughta hear him swear! (The Flash Packet)


Aft on the poop deck, walking about,
There is the second mate, so steady and so stout
What he is thinking of, he only knows himself,
We wish that he would hurry up and strike, strike the bell. (Strike the Bell)

The bell, which in this period begins to take on the aura of the factory whistle, is sounded every half hour in each watch, so that “eight bells” signifies the changing of the watch, the turning of the glass, and the report of the lookouts to the mate.