Folk songs reflect the lives of those singing them. Sea shanties were popular among sailors from the 18th to the 20th century. This style of work song could be heard in American merchant vessels prior to the Civil War.
These tunes could be heard while men adjusted the rig or raised the anchor. They were also sung when other tasks required the men to work together in rhythm, such as rowing.
About these team songs, experts say their rhythms were precise and often used call-and-response elements. African Americans who sang while loading these ships, stoking steamboat furnaces and other tasks are credited with influencing these work songs that were belted out by all.
Freedom To Sing
In some instances, the lyrics, which were easily adapted, allowing sailors and slaves alike to sing about what they might not otherwise be able to talk about.
The range of music also included elements of minstrel music, popular marches and regional folk songs. Traditionally, they are grouped into three primary types: short haul shanties for shorter trips; halyard shanties for heavier work and capstan shanties for long, repetitive tasks.
One classic sea shanty example was a popular American folk song that had Irish roots. “Poor Paddy Works on the Railway" while being a song about the railroad was adapted to be a work tune about working on a boat on Erie.
Other memorable sea shanties included “Blow the Man Down” and “Drunken Sailor”.