• Learn More About Sea Shanteys
Grade 6, Log On
Sea chanteys are songs meant to accompany people as they work. The word is sometimes spelled "chantey" and other times "shantey," which also hints to some of its possible origins. The French verb for "sing" is chanter (or, when used as a command, chantez). Another possibility is that the word comes from late nineteenth century North America, when men all along the east coast worked in small nomadic camps, and lived in shanties. These men were lumberjacks, sailors, ship workers, or railroad workers, and they sang their songs as they worked.
The form of chanteys might very well be attributed to the type of work the original singers were performing. Chanteys are divided into solo and chorus sections. The work leader calls out a passage (solo), to which the group of workers would respond (chorus). Certain kinds of songs were used for a certain kind of task. If they were doing a quick repeated action, like pulling on a rope, they might use short calls back and forth. The words and stories told in sea chanteys were sometimes coarse or rough. They served not only to synchronize the actions of the workers, but also to amuse them and take their minds off of the difficult and burdensome work. Many chantey singers would improvise passages, to which the workers would always respond with the same refrain or chorus.
The invention of steam-powered engines did away with the need for the chanteys and work songs, but the interest in these folk songs remain. Some of these songs are hundreds of years old but are still well-known today.