Won’t you take me to, chantey towwwwwn?
Blessedly gifted with nerd parents, I got my start with sea chanteys young. Since infancy, I was brought to Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival, a smorgasbord of roots music from all over the world. Along with the klezmer music, the bluegrass, the buskers with banjoes, and the jug bands, you’ll find my little corner of perfection, a Maritime stage featuring a rotating cast of chantey groups. Some are good, some fantastic, and some are at least tolerable when paired with a pint in the nearby beer garden. Long before beer crossed my lips, though, I was in the front row, singing along like the elementary school pirate pirate I knew myself to be.*
The beauty of sea chanteys, is they’re meant to be sung by large groups with varying levels of vocal technique. They’re the ultimate populist music. As long as you have a decent singer to belt out each verse, the chorus is carried by the crowd–the more the merrier–who may or may not be able to carry a tune. And chantey’s, at their heart, are songs for the working class–there’s nothing rarefied about them. Many of the traditional songs are of unknown origin–they were sung by sailors and penned by long forgotten poets of the high seas. These were songs sung to make the long days pass, to keep the rhythm of rowing and hauling ropes, to unify the crew, and remind men of their whalin’ days.
There are lots of types of chanteys, from all over the world. There are the weepy ballards, like “The Grey Funnel Line” by Cyril Tawney, that generate a raised glass and a tear or two at the end of a whiskey-soaked evening:
“Don’t mind the rain or the rolling sea
The weary night never worries me
But the hardest time in a sailor’s day
Is to watch the sun as it dies away
Here’s one more day on the Grey Funnel Line
The finest ship that sails the sea
Is still a prison for the likes of me
But give me wings like Noah’s dove
I’ll fly up harbour to the girl I love
Here’s one more day on the Grey Funnel Line”
There are plenty of the “Haul away boys, heave away” variety, which are great fun to sing along to and involve public grunting and pulling of imaginary chains. The traditional song, “Bully in the Alley” is a classic example of this type of song. But the majority of chanteys ride the line between regret, sorrow, rage, and maudlin longing. These are tales of loves and legs lost, of wars fought, of boats torn asunder on jagged rocks and dreams swept out to sea.
One of my favorites is “Barrett’s Privateers,” written by Canadian musician, Stan Rogers. The song is sung from the point of view of a 23-year-old who has sailed aboard the ill-fated sloop The Antelope, on its quest to Jamaica to grab American gold. Things don’t go as planned, and the boat goes down. Some sample lyrics:
“The Antelope shook and pitched on her side, How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now! Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs and the Maintruck carried off both me legs. Goddamn them all! I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold. We’d fire no guns, shed no tears! Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier, the last of Barrett’s privateers.”
This is storytelling at its finest.
Or what about “A Sailor’s Prayer” by Tom Lewis, a bitter, brilliant drinking song with the best chorus of all time:
“Oh lord above, send down a dove, with beak as sharp as razors!
To cut the throats of them there blokes who sells bad beer to sailors!”
If you’re a Pogues fan, how could you not like sea chanties? If you like to drink and pound your glass and swear without reprimand, this is the music for you. Or if, like me, you’ve got a bum colon and can’t drink but have a sentimental streak and a love of singing at the top of your lungs, join the party. There’s always room for more.
*My birthday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Coincidence? I think not, me scurvy dogs.