Preserving sea shanties: Ancient chorals beyond the memory of men

22 January 2021

Cultural Studies | History

 

This blog includes temporary free access to a scrapbook of nautical clippings from the Adam Matthew resource Age of Exploration. Click on the images below to browse this document for free until 22nd February 2021.

 

Scrapbook of clippings, c.1907-1922 © The Explorer's Club. All rights reserved. Click to browse this scrapbook for free until 22nd February 2021.
Scrapbook of clippings, c.1907-1922 © The Explorer's Club. All rights reserved. Click to browse this scrapbook for free until 22nd February 2021.

Listen well, me hearties – 2021 is the year of the sea shanty and we at Adam Matthew have proven less than immune to the glorious sounds of Scottish postmen and Tik-tokers harmonising from far and wide across the land. Inundated with renditions of drunken sailors, The Wellerman and a variety of unexpected remixes, I set course to find some historic examples from the golden age of sail.

Amongst rare manuscripts, nautical accounts and early footage of expeditions, I discovered hidden treasure within our digital resource Age of Exploration – a scrapbook of clippings from the turn of the century (c.1907-1922), compiled by Albert L. Operti and housed in the legendary archives of the Explorer’s Club. Though not an explorer himself, Italian-born painter Operti served as the official artist for the Arctic missions of Robert Peary and maintained an avid interest in exploration for the rest of his life. His scrapbook is jam-packed with humorous cartoons, poems, illustrations and articles on naval news. A series of reviews and letters from readers revealed that shanties were being carefully preserved and recorded in the early 1900s. Examples referenced here include Hanging Johnny, Santy Anna, Roll the Cotton Down, Roving, Captain Kidd and more.

Scrapbook of clippings, c.1907-1922 © The Explorer's Club. All rights reserved. Click to browse this scrapbook for free until 22nd February 2021.
Scrapbook of clippings, c.1907-1922 © The Explorer's Club. All rights reserved. Click to browse this scrapbook for free until 22nd February 2021.

One review pasted into Operti’s scrapbook focusses on Songs of American Sailor-Men, edited by the pioneering social worker Joanna C. Colcord. Joanna, the reviewer explains, was the “daughter of Captain Lincoln Colcord, and the collection is a gathering and a sifting of chanty material taken down by Miss Colcord in days when she accompanied her father on his deep-sea voyages.” A childhood spent adventuring across the high seas!? I read on, jealously, about how few people still remembered the songs sung by “genuine salts”. Hearing one is “a hair-raising, spine-crinkling experience, for many of these ancient chorals are old beyond the knowledge and memory of men”.

Another article found by Operti is titled “Sea Chanteys Kept Alive” – although as the author warns, “if you would avoid being known as a landlubber pronounce it shanties" – and details the efforts of the Sailors’ Club in London to collect “old songs of sail”. Lyrics for Santa Ana (presumably a variant of the above), the Stately Southerner and Whisky Johnny are reprinted in full. It’s thrilling to read about these monthly gatherings and imagine joining them for an evening where stories were swapped, rum was drunk and shanties sung by a “gathering of old seamen who will not let them die”.

Though working chants would have been employed across the globe throughout history, the sea shanty reached its peak in the mid-1800s; the rhythmic, call-and-response style of these songs was well-suited to the physical, group labour that sailors undertook at sea.  Shanties are once again riding high today and seem unlikely, as the old "salts" of the Sailors’ Club wished, to die out any time soon.

 


For more information about Age of Exploration, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This scrapbook will be freely available to browse online until 22nd February 2021.

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, nineteenth-century publishing and socialist propaganda. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.