Preserving sea shanties: Ancient chorals beyond the memory of men
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.
Listen well, me hearties ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôs 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.
One review pasted into Operti‚Äôs scrapbook focusses on Songs of American Sailor-Men, edited by the pioneering social worker Joanna C. Colcord. Joanna, the reviewer explains, was the ‚Äúdaughter 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.‚ÄĚ A childhood spent adventuring across the high seas!? I read on, jealously, about how few people still remembered the songs sung by ‚Äúgenuine salts‚ÄĚ. Hearing one is ‚Äúa hair-raising, spine-crinkling experience, for many of these ancient chorals are old beyond the knowledge and memory of men‚ÄĚ.
Another article found by Operti is titled ‚ÄúSea Chanteys Kept Alive‚ÄĚ ‚Äď although as the author warns, ‚Äúif you would avoid being known as a landlubber pronounce it shanties" ‚Äď and details the efforts of the Sailors‚Äô Club in London to collect ‚Äúold songs of sail‚ÄĚ. Lyrics for Santa Ana (presumably a variant of the above), the Stately Southerner and Whisky Johnny are reprinted in full. It‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúgathering of old seamen who will not let them die‚ÄĚ.
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‚Äô Club wished, to die out any time soon.
This scrapbook will be freely available to browse online until 22nd February 2021.