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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Capstan, halyard, sheet and pump

One of Captain Scott’s earliest Journal entries on his Terra Nova expedition is dated Christmas Day, 1910: “For five hours the company has been sitting round the table singing lustily.” He drily adds, “It is a rather surprising circumstance that such an unmusical party should be so keen on singing.” What were they singing? Sea shanties, or sea work songs.

As Scott notes, ‘The merchant sailors have quite a repertoire and invariably call on it when getting up anchor or hoisting sails.’ Scott’s crew was made up of Royal Navy and merchant navy men and scientists. The Royal Navy had prohibited the singing of sea shanties in the late 19th century because the authorities were concerned that overenthusiastic singing would drown out orders.

Shanties were at once a useful aid to work - sailors learned to regulate their movements in time with the songs - and a distraction from the backbreaking nature of the work. Broadly speaking, two classes of shanty developed: hauling and heaving shanties. Hauling shanties were better suited to choppy, intermittent types of labour and were mostly in 6/8 time. Heaving shanties were sung for continuous activities, and their 4/4 time signature betrayed their shore origins. There were different sub-classes of shanty (e.g. capstan, halyard, sheet and pump shanties), depending on the particular task each one was originated to accompany.

Image taken from Stan Hugill's Shanties From the Seven Seas.

Of course, shanties also had a social function; to bind the crew. Ship crew were often a superstitious bunch, who would respect the taboo against singing them ashore. Perhaps it was the rationality of the scientist expedition members that tempered Captain Scott’s crew’s disinclination to sing ashore, or maybe this sort of convention is easily forgotten in the middle of an icy expanse. The philosopher Ziyad Marar writes about the trend for what were social concerns in antiquity (how does a happy life serve my community?) to devolve into issues of individual psychology in modern times (what makes me happy?) – huge leaps were made in this direction in the past century. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Captain Scott’s crew were more mindful of the harmony of the group than most people would be today.

On the subject of harmony, shanties mostly lacked harmony, being driven, instead, by melody. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most sailors sang bass-baritone, rather than tenor, with a few treble shiphands. With regard to the origins of shanties, one theory supported by Stan Hugill, the last great British champion of the shanty, is that they are the ‘loose ends’ left over from airs played on the ship’s fiddle.

The earliest British shanties are first mentioned in the 15th century. It’s not surprising that seafarers’ songs appear to have mixed with working and folk songs from around the world, picking up calypso inflections here and skiffle cadences there. It was common for the words of one song to be put to the tune of others, which makes tracing the phylogeny of songs difficult. This difficulty has been compounded when salty lyrics have been bowdlerised in ‘fair copy’ by earnest musicologists.

Whatever lyrics were on Captain Scott’s men’s lips, it’s hard to play down their determination to make music: they even took a piano on to the ice with them on the Discovery expedition, though only Lt Royds was noted to be a competent player.

I’m organising a fund-raising concert for the ISCE2012 on September 29th at St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road SW7. The outstanding Monica McGhee will sing and coordinate the evening’s programme. The theme will be nautical, including a shanty or two – any suggestions?


  1. How about something by Britten? Lots of moody sea pieces there.

  2. "Spanish lady" ;)



About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.