Beyond society’s canons of literature there are the outlaws – songs and stories that survive in the wild. Sea shanties are among the hardiest of these forms and all the more remarkable for having their roots in a vanished world of sailing ships. There is a raw surrealism in sea shanties that is bred from endless nights in the belly of tomb-like wooden hulks floating on deep swelling oceans. The wild ramblings (‘Cape Cod kids ain’t got no sleds/They slide down the hills on codfish heads’) are tempered by the disciplined, rope burned, rhythms of the nautical work song. It is this emphasis on hard manual labour, combined with a sailor’s wicked word play, which gives these songs their enduring appeal. You can sense their influence behind Shakespeare’s sea song in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.
And you can hear them lurking in the sailors’ song in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon – ‘Sumatra, where the girls all look like Cleopatra, and when you’re done you’ll simply barter…’ Sea shanties move with a swagger. They tempt purple prose and have given birth to long rambling movies from Moby Dick to Pirates of the Caribbean. They’re proof that not all our genetic code is in the marrow – some of it is in songs like these.
This selection is taken from the collection of Andrew Draskóy on his website Shanties and Sea Songs. As he suggests these lyrics are best heard sung and three good albums provide a starting point:
- Sailor’s Songs and Sea Shanties (Highpoint, 2004)
- Blow the Man Down: a Collection of Sea Songs & Shanties (Topic, 1995)
- Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys (Epitaph, 2006)