Shanties are work songs, originating in the woods and railway yards of America, and/or the docks and ships of the early 1800s. It is from these two backgrounds that come the two different spellings: chanty or shanty. The former has its grounding in the belief that the word chant is in its origins. Some have even surmised the French word "Chantez", which means sing or chant. Others argue the latter for the types of houses that workers lived in around the railyards and lumberyards - "shanteytowns". I use shanty because of no other reason than I like the way the word looks. Only search engines notice the difference.
In any case, shanties were used to lighten the work and ease the boredom of repetitive work. Before there were steam- or gas-powered engines, the work was done by water, wind, muscle, and sweat. As the blacksmith, harvest worker, and weaver all adapted songs for the rhythms particular to their work, so do the common sailor.
Shanty singing on ships has gone on from 1493 to 1920. The glory days of shanties was from roughly 1820 to 1920. Steam- and diesel-powered ships killed the job of shanteyman. Now, only singing groups continue the tradition.
The purpose of shanteys were to ease sailors' task on board a ship. The lyrics as listed are by no means definitive. I have used non-offensive lyrics wherever possible. The shanteymen themselves could adapt a song based on the task at hand. The verses could be sung in any order or words changed/omitted/added. The song lyrics I have chosen were mainly those that tell a story in some kind of fashion.
A good shanteyman would be worth his weight in gold, just like a good drill sergeant today can make a march more bearable with the proper use of song.
Short Drag Shanty
Short drag or short haul shanties were for tasks requiring quick pulls over a relatively short time, such as shortening or unfurling sails. Return To Shanties
Long Drag Shanty
Long drag or halyard shanties were for heavier work requiring more setup time between pulls. For example, to get a heavy sail up to the mast, a shanty that gave the men a rest in between the hauls was what was required. The same shanty could also be used to lower the sails. This type of shanty usually has a chorus at the end of each line. These songs were used for long, heavy periods of labor.
Capstan (or windlass) shanties were used for long repetitive tasks, that simply need a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering the anchor while winding up the heavy anchor chain was their prime use. This winding was done by pushing round and round at the capstan bars, which required a long and continuous effort. These are the most devloped of the work shanties. Return To Shanties
In the evening, when the work was done, it was time to relax. Singing was a favored method of relaxation. The songs sung could come from places visited, either at home or in some foreign land. Naturally, songs of love, adventure, pathos, and famous men, battles, or just plain funny songs topped the list.
Life on a whaler was worse than any other type of vessel, except maybe that of a pirate ship (in the sense of surviving). Voyages typically lasted from two to three years, and you also had the ever-present stench of whale oil. Chasing a whale could lead to the ship being smashed by the whale's tail. Many sailors were maimed or killed by the tail. Return To Shanties