The sailors from generations ago must be turning in their briny graves to think that sea shanties are now sung for fun and recreation and not to help sail a ship home after months of hardship of intense manual labour on the rolling seas! Now you’d find four well dressed, underworked, well trimmed fellas, in the form of Na Fianna, sing a well known sweating-up shanty, Haul Away Joe.
There are many types of sea shanties such as sweating-up. There are the windlass and capstan, halliard, fore-sheet/sweating-up, and bunt shanties, amongst other songs of the sea, of which may not be directly related to been sung whilst labour was being carried out, but I relate to them as shanties. The original shanty has no real place of birth, or no rightful owner, although its most frequent around Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales and its surrounding islands, as well as the West Indies, and northern America. The British were most frequent on the water as they are a colonising country and there was constant travelling to lands for either hauling cargo and goods in both directions, or otherwise, and were more frequent than of those travelling from Ireland. Ireland’s history tells us that we were not big sea farers worldwide but we rather stay in our local waters in our currachs and smaller fishing boats. However, I always like to think that on these British ships, the shanty man was always Irish fella, as music and song is in our blood and there were many Irishmen on these foreign boats as that was where they found work.
Shanties are amazing songs to sing, and singing them a cappella is the done thing. To make them come even more to life, sprinkle some manly harmonies in there and there’s nothing better to belt out! That’s why shanties are surviving through time. Some of Ireland’s most famous folk singers have performed sea shanties and made certain shanties the definitive version. The Clancy Brothers sang “Haul Away Joe” and will forever be associated with the song. A recording on Youtube of the Clancy Brother’s singing it on Ireland’s Late Late Show, is the kind of moment that makes those four fellas stand out from the rest….apart from the matching, Aran sweater, attire! Andy Irvine, of Sweeney’s Men and Planxty, sang Sally Browne, a fantastic shanty about a beautiful girl named Sally from the West Indies and one particular sailor falling for her but eventually settling for Sally’s daughter. Sally was a popular name in the West Indies so you will find many references to ‘Sally’ in many shanties.
Finbar Furey sings one of my favourites, and even featured in the film, ‘Gangs of New York’. The song is “New York Girls” and it’s certainly one of the more happier shanties, even it is the tale of a sailor and his encounter with a thieving prostitute. The Pogues, for me, owned the version of “South Australia” with their up-tempo version. It suited the song and became a big hit and brought the shanty in to a whole different world of music with a rock and punk vibe. Johnny McEvoy, a close friend of mine, has also delved in to the sea shanty world and has actually sang more than I’ve thought originally. He’s renowned for the famous “Leaving of Liverpool” but it’s one of own songs that stand out for me, in the form of “Boston Ladies”. Another song about leaving no doubt, but leaving the port at Boston this time. The Dubliners have recorded almost all of the above but “The Irish Rover” and “Fiddler’s Green” are the sea songs that captivated the Irish most by far. “The Irish Rover” was a massive hit and although not a traditional shanty, the song tells of a voyage from Ireland to New York in a ship filled with goods…everything from ‘five million hogs, to six million dogs” on board. What a trip. The Dubliners’ latter years as a band saw them perform “Fiddler’s Green” more than before, but with Barney McKenna’s charming trembling voice singing it with pure dedication and love of the sea life and fishing trade, made everyone fall for the sea so easily.
We can’t mention sea shanties without talking about “The Drunken Sailor”. Sang by every folk band across the world since the beginning of time, it shows the power of a good song…and it started out as a mere sea shanty to help pull and drag out of some rope. The song has references to whaling, as in; “way hey up she rises”…the whaling industry and period was a busy time for the shanties to be performed. A lot of whaling took place off North America as it was relatively unchartered waters and it’s why the Canadians have such a powerful link to the songs. One of my favourite singers is the late, great, Stan Rogers, from Canada. I’ve found lots of my favourite songs through him such as “Leave Her Johnny”, and “Barrett’s Privateers”. He had big connections in Nova Scotia and it’s there where he became one of the worlds best maritime singers and songwriters. If there’s a Canadian sea shanty, this fella has performed it. Further south in the USA, another one of my favourite artists, Woody Guthrie, performs the wonderful version of “Blow The Man Down”. The song has been taken and in different ways featured in various films and T.V. shows including most recent as in the theme tune to the cartoon ‘Spongebob Squarepants’, and been sang by the stars in ‘The Big Bang Theory’.
Back closer to home, you have the wonderful English folk band, Bellowhead, singing an array of shanties including the uplifting “Roll Alabama Roll”, telling the story of the illustrious boating career of the CSS Alabama during the American Civil War. Further north of Great Britain, the Scots have a plentiful amount of beautiful shanties including one I’ve recorded before with Na Fianna, “The Mingulay Boat Song”. Mingulay is a region in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland and have a big relationship with the sea. Some lyrics in the song convey this by stating; “Wives are waiting on the pierhead, or looking seaward from the heather”. The importance of the sea must have been of high importance to life on the islands and also very threatening to life on the islands.
The sea shanty is on a remarkable journey through the ages of time and music, and keeps on throwing surprises at us each year making it impossible to tell where the next shanty will pop up, or who will sing one, or what it will be about. The love affair with the sea continues.
Na Fianna’s Version of “Haul Away Joe”