Sea Shanties

Photo by Joe Ambrogio from Pexels

Back in 2019, sea shanties were cast into the mainstream when the movie, Fisherman’s Friends was released. Based on a true story, the movie tells the tale of a group of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac who signed a record deal with Universal Records. The group achieved a top 10 hit with their debut album of traditional sea shanties. Fast forward to 2021 and sea shanties were once again in the limelight thanks to the social media app, TikTok.

In February of 2021, a 27-year-old former postman called Nathan Evans from Airdrie in Scotland reached number three in the UK charts and number one in Germany with his version of the sea shanty, the “Wellerman”. Since going Viral on TikTok, Evans and his rendition of the “Wellerman” have featured on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the BBC One Show and many other prime time TV channels both in the United Kingdom and overseas.

The origin of the word ‘sea shanty’ has a somewhat murky origin and it would appear that many cultures had their own rendition of a shanty. One source that I found stated that the word ‘shanty’ originated from the French word ‘chantier’, which is a site, yard or dockyard. Another source states that the word comes from the French word ‘chanter’, meaning ‘to sing’.

The word also has many subsidiary meanings. In Canada, it is the name for a log hut built by men engaged in lumbering operations. The word was also used for groups of workmen who were often called ‘shantymen’. Another source states that the word means a wooden shack with a shaky door, with another book attributing the word to the Irish word ‘sean’ (old) and ‘tight’ (house).

Lastly, I found a source that gave the origin of the word to the African slave trade, where the word ‘shanty’ was a house that housed the slaves that were transported to the West Indies. The word also sounds like the English word ‘chant’ and could have derived from ‘sea chant’.

Despite the origin of the word, rhythmic music to work or rowing can be dated back thousands of years to the Greek God Orpheus ‘father of songs’, who set chants to the rhythm of rowers. Herodotus and Thucydides mention a shantyman in their writings, stating that his job was to lead and synchronise sailors through song.

Gerry Smyth, the author of the newly published Sailor Song, notes that sea shanties were a phenomenon of merchant ships with work rhythms. The simple melodies of the songs were set to the rhythm of specific work tasks onboard ships such as rowing, raising the anchors and raising the sails. For example, “Drunken Sailor” would be sung when the sails were hoisted or the anchor raised “wey hey and up she rises”.

According to the website Songfacts®, the “Drunken Sailor” is perhaps the oldest known Anglo-Saxon sea shanty. It was originally sung by Indiamen (a ship engaged in trade with India or the East or West Indies) of the Honorable John Company. The song was allegedly the only song that the Royal Navy allowed its crew members to sing on board.

The song “My Mother Told Me”, can be dated back to somewhere between 1000–1200 and is an old Norse song. The song gained some popularity when it featured on the TV series Vikings S04E09. However, more recently, it has gained popularity in the mainstream after TikTok star natidreddd posted her version of the song on the social media site. The origins of the song seem to have been written as a poem and were published by Viking warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson in Egil’s Saga.

As for the “Wellerman”. It is alleged that the song is a whaling song, originating in the mid-nineteenth century in New Zealand. The name, Wellerman came from the English brothers that owned the whaling company, the Weller brothers, with the ships carrying tea and rum.

Shanties often made their way from the ships and into ports with the crewmen becoming popular drinking songs.

Thanks for reading.


‘Sea fever: From ancient Greece to TikTok: Alexandra Coghlan on the pulling power of shanties’ (2021) Spectator, 345(10041), 42+, available:

‘Wellerman’ is a New Zealand folksong dating back to the 19th century which is often sung by sea shanty crews. It…

What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor? by Traditional song meaning, lyric interpretation, video and chart position:,merchant%20'tall'%20sailing%20ships.




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Elizabeth Iris

Elizabeth Iris

Photographer and like to try stuff out.

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