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Sea Shanties: Music From the Sailing Ships of Yore

With seafaring ancestors in her maternal line, Liz gives them credit for her lifelong fascination with boats and water.

Bowsprit of a sailing ship

Bowsprit of a sailing ship

Sea Shanties Had a Purpose

Way back when, in the olden days of tall ships, there were songs of a special nature sung by the sailors. Many of them were cadences, used to keep a steady rhythm when hoisting the sails, which had to be done by many men pulling on the lines. If they were out of sync with each other, it would be very hard to raise the sails; they'd be just flapping about, loose and ineffective.

(A word for the uninitiated—there are only 2 ropes on a ship: the bell rope and the bucket rope. All the rest are lines, halyards, stays, and hawsers. Hawsers are those gigantic lines you see tying up the likes of a modern cargo ship; they can be up to 4” or more in diameter!)

When my mother was a teenager, she was very involved with the branch of Girl Scouts known as the Mariners. She learned many of these songs, and I grew up with them.

These are songs that belong to history; they were written and sung for so many years that the original composers are long since forgotten.

Here, then, is a selection of some of my favorites.

10 of My Favorite Sea Shanties

  1. "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?"
  2. "Roll the Old Chariot"
  3. "Haul Away Joe"
  4. "The Flying Dutchman"
  5. "Don't Forget Your Old Shipmate"
  6. "The Mermaid"
  7. "A Capital Ship"
  8. "Blow the Man Down"
  9. "Bound for the Rio Grande"
  10. "Shenandoah"

"What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?"

In this ballad-like song, the verses debate how best to punish a sailor who shows up drunk. The suggested actions range from the funny to the bawdy, depending upon the version. There is no doubt in my mind that among a crew of rough-and-tumble sailors in those days, there were a good many x-rated verses tossed in.

The refrain, or chorus, however, does show the intent of hoisting sails. It goes like this, in its original spelling and context:

“Weigh, hay, and up she rises, weigh, hay, and up she rises, weigh, hay, and up she rises, Earl-lie in the morning.”

In this sense, the spelling of "weigh" as it is spelled when calculating pounds, is the same as "weighing anchor," or pulling up the anchor, which, of course, has substantial weight. Similarly, the effort to hauling the massive sailcloth into position has a lot of weight, hence, 'weighing' the sails, as it were.

Note that while the version below claims 'extracted from the game, Assasin's Creed 4,' the song itself far pre-dates any current copyrights, and has been in the public domain for many years. It is, in fact, the only version I was able to find sung at the correct tempo, as it would have been used during the hoisting of the sails. All the others were far too fast.

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Early in the morning?

Way-hay, up she rises

Way-hay, up she rises

Way-hay, up she rises

Early in the morning

The Next Four...

...are songs I came across while searching for examples, although they are not songs with which I was previously acquainted. However, I liked them, and so present them here for your enjoyment.

Oh, we'd be alright if the wind was in our sails

We'd be alright if the wind was in our sails

We'd be alright if the wind was in our sails

And we'll all hang on behind...

"Roll the Old Chariot"

When I was a little lad

And so my mother told me,

Way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe!

That if I did not kiss the gals

Me lips would all grow moldy.

Way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe!

"Haul Away Joe"

"Beware the Flying Dutchman"

Much like a mermaid, it is said that sighting the Flying Dutchman is an omen of doom.

How many of these things were seen by sailors of old? Were they hallucinating from long days staring out across empty sea and sky? Were they "matrixing" pictures from storm clouds?
Or, perhaps they did come across derelict ships adrift, and took them as bad luck.

Turn this ship around me boys

Turn around and run!

That storm it wants a battle

And it's sure that were outgunned!

What of the ship that's out there

Do we leave her to the gale?

She's called the Flying Dutchman

And it's…

Songs of Longing and Camaraderie

Many songs feature themes of loss of loved ones; or of shipboard friendships formed.

When they finally came in to port, they no doubt tossed a few back at the local pub before heading home to find if their true love still awaited, or, if they were retiring, perhaps expressed a longing to retain the friends they had made at sea.

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack.

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack.

Long we've tossed on the rolling main, now we're safe ashore, Jack.

Don't forget yer old shipmate, faldee raldee raldee raldee rye-eye-doe!

"Don't Forget Your Old Shipmate"

The Final Five...

...are more songs I learned as a child or teen, up through my young adult years. I love them all.
To begin, beware the bewitching mermaid, for she will lure you to Davy Jones' Locker at the bottom of the sea!

It is worth noting that there was a mermaid song way before Walt Disney was a twinkle in his mother's eye! I wonder where he got the idea? (Things that make you go, "Hmmmm...")

The Mermaid

It was a Friday morn when we set sail

And we were not far from the land

When our captain spied a lovely mermaid

With a comb and a glass in her hand

"The Mermaid"

"A Capital Ship"

This is a whimsical tune I leaned as a youngster, and it always tickles my funnybone. As a child, it was fun to belt it out at top volume, surely driving my poor mother bonkers!

A capital ship for an ocean trip

Was the "Walloping Window Blind"

No wind that blew dismayed her crew

Or troubled the captain's mind

The man at the wheel was made to feel

Contempt for the wildest blow-ow-ow

Tho' it oft appeared when the gale had cleared

That he'd been in his bunk below

"Blow the Man Down"

This is another of the whimsical sort. Its verses are many and varied, and I've seen some that definitely tend toward the 'x-rated' variety.

This one is perfectly clean, however, so enjoy!

Come all ye young fellows that follows the sea

To me, way hey, blow the man down

Now please pay attention and listen to me

Give me some time to blow the man down

"We're Bound for the Rio Grande"

As with many of the old sea shanties, this one speaks of leaving loved ones behind as the ship and crew head out to sea, sometimes for months or even years at a time.

The anchor is weighed and sails they are set. Away, Rio!

The girls back home we'll never forget for we're bound for the Rio Grande.

And away, Rio! High away, Rio! The girls back home we'll never forget for we're bound for the Rio Grande.

Two more days, Johnny, two more days. Only two more days, Johnny, two more days.

And Finally, "Shenandoah"

It's a tune I've always liked, and it's very haunting and somehow sad feeling, but still has a very beautiful melody. I've included two versions here.

The first is an a capella solo, and I felt sorry for the singer, and the conditions in which he was performing. (In fact, he mentions this himself after the end of the song.) The song itself ends at about the 3:11 mark, and the balance is commentary and a pitch for other pieces. Peter Hollens voice just gives me chills; it's the best rendition I've heard in a long time.

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you

Look away, you rollin' river

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you

Look away, we're bound away

Across the wide Missouri.

Version 1

Version 2

That Brings Us Home

Back on dry land, the salty sea left lapping at our feet by the shore, we can imagine the creaking of the ship's planks and whip of the sails in the wind.

And if we listen carefully, we can yet hear the echoes of the old tars singing their songs as they go about their shipboard chores.

© 2019 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 23, 2019:

Hello Eric!

Thank you for your kind words. I'm most pleased that you so enjoyed this article and its songs. The songs are fun; I've enjoyed them all my life.

I've seen the Californian once or twice passing through San Francisco Bay, but not for many years since. The ship I have the photo of at the top is the Hawaiian Chieftain, and it's a steel-hulled replica of the old tall ships. It's a gaff-rigged schooner, I was told.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 23, 2019:

What a blast! Thank you. Very fun songs. Our Tall ship the "Star of India" is so fun to go aboard and imagine. The Californian also blesses our San Diego bay from time to time.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 22, 2019:

Hi Ruby,

Thank you very much; I'm glad you enjoyed this set of sea shanties. I think "Blow the Man Down" is one of the first ones I ever learned, along with "Drunken Sailor."

You are right; it was a hardscrabble life without much fun. They had to make it where they could fit it in.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 21, 2019:

This was a fun read. I am familiar with the " Blow The Man Down " I can remember singing this song when I was a kid. I guess being in the Navy of long ago was rough with some fun added in. lol

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 20, 2019:

Thanks, Bill!

I have to agree. Much as I am fascinated by the old tall ships, I feel much of our view of them today is a very romanticized version of what was most assuredly a hard life indeed.

I forget who said it, but there was an old quotation many years ago, "We used to have wooden ships and iron men; now we have iron ships and wooden men."

I'm delighted you enjoyed my collection of sea shanties!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 20, 2019:

That was a fun and educational trip, my friend. What a tough gig that would have been, and to me a frightening one. There was no room for error out on the seas in the early days....and such hard work....I think I'm happy just to read about it.:)