Types of Shanties

Shanties, according to Steve Lewis, weren't just for amusement. "On the old ships, every job was done by hand, and it was important to keep the crew's concentration on the work they were doing at the time, Lewis said." PDN
Shanties were songs crafted and sung by those sailing the seas before the era of steam-powered ships, mostly associated with the 19th century. The working songs, known as shanties, were sung for short drag (short haul) or long drag (halyard), capstan (windlass), pumping and whaling shanties.

The short drag (short haul) shanties were for tasks that required short bursts of energy and a quick pull as when unfurling or shortening a sail. With steady rhythm, the crew worked in unison to get the job done safely and efficiently; critical in rough seas. Example: Paddy Doyle's Boots.

The long haul (halyard) shanties were for tasks that required heavy labor over a long period of time, usually demanding more time to set up the work, taking a deep breath and getting a fresh grip, as when raising or lowering a heavy sail. This type of shanty has a chorus at the end of each line. Example: Blow the Man Down.

Steve Lewis (1942-2011) at the Upstage singing Blow the Man Down and other favorite shanties.

The capstan (windlass) shanties were for repetitive tasks that needed to be sustained with the appropriate rhythm as when raising or lowering the anchor. Envision the crew trudging round and round as they worked as one, continually pushed the capstan bars to wind up anchor chain. Example: Drunken Sailor.

Pumping shanties - wooden ships leak a lot and the work to pump the bilge dry was grueling work below decks in the bowels of the boat. Example: Santy Ano.

The whaling shanties reflect the harshness and danger of working aboard a whaling ship. Typically at sea for two years or more, a whaler’s life was often short-lived and the work was grueling and wretched. It was the whaling shanty that gave them strength and courage to stay the course in the midst of the worst circumstances, foul stench and life-threatening risks. Example: Bonnie Ship the Diamond.

The forebitters, also know as forecastle (fo'c'sle) songs, were sung when the work was done. They’re typically stories of adventure and places they'd been, loves and loves lost, the stories of famous men, heroism, battles at sea, melancholy, laments and humor. The forecastle is the area forward of the foremast of a sailing ship or the forward-most part of a ship with the sailor’s living quarters. Example: Leave Her, Johnny.

You will also encounter the name of sailor's working songs spelled shanty, shantey or chanty, chantey. It's noted by various authors and in discussion threads like Shanty or Chantey? that chanty or chantey are the American versions of the European shanty or shantey.

For resources to search collections of maritime song lyrics, go to John's Nautical Music PageJohn Ward's List of Shanties and Sea SongsTraditional Music (UK)Folk Den,  Sailor Songs, The FolkloristShanty RendanceThe Traditional Ballad Index, All the Lyrics and Smithsonian Folkways - Songs of the Sea.

Alice Winship, President of Maritime Folknet, highly recommends the book, Shanties from the Seven Seas - Shipboard work songs and song used as work songs from the great days of sail, collected by Stan Hugill as the definitive book on sea shanties. A must read for anyone interested in knowing more about songs of the sea.