Preserving sea shanties: Ancient chorals beyond the memory of men
This blog includes temporary free access to a scrapbook of nautical clippings from the Adam Matthew resource Age of Exploration. Click on the images below to browse this document for free until 22nd February 2021.
Listen well, me hearties â€“ 2021 is the year of the sea shanty and we at Adam Matthew have proven less than immune to the glorious sounds of Scottish postmen and Tik-tokers harmonising from far and wide across the land. Inundated with renditions of drunken sailors, The Wellerman and a variety of unexpected remixes, I set course to find some historic examples from the golden age of sail.
Amongst rare manuscripts, nautical accounts and early footage of expeditions, I discovered hidden treasure within our digital resource Age of Exploration â€“ a scrapbook of clippings from the turn of the century (c.1907-1922), compiled by Albert L. Operti and housed in the legendary archives of the Explorerâ€™s Club. Though not an explorer himself, Italian-born painter Operti served as the official artist for the Arctic missions of Robert Peary and maintained an avid interest in exploration for the rest of his life. His scrapbook is jam-packed with humorous cartoons, poems, illustrations and articles on naval news. A series of reviews and letters from readers revealed that shanties were being carefully preserved and recorded in the early 1900s. Examples referenced here include Hanging Johnny, Santy Anna, Roll the Cotton Down, Roving, Captain Kidd and more.
One review pasted into Opertiâ€™s scrapbook focusses on Songs of American Sailor-Men, edited by the pioneering social worker Joanna C. Colcord. Joanna, the reviewer explains, was the â€śdaughter of Captain Lincoln Colcord, and the collection is a gathering and a sifting of chanty material taken down by Miss Colcord in days when she accompanied her father on his deep-sea voyages.â€ť A childhood spent adventuring across the high seas!? I read on, jealously, about how few people still remembered the songs sung by â€śgenuine saltsâ€ť. Hearing one is â€śa hair-raising, spine-crinkling experience, for many of these ancient chorals are old beyond the knowledge and memory of menâ€ť.
Another article found by Operti is titled â€śSea Chanteys Kept Aliveâ€ť â€“ although as the author warns, â€śif you would avoid being known as a landlubber pronounce it shanties" â€“ and details the efforts of the Sailorsâ€™ Club in London to collect â€śold songs of sailâ€ť. Lyrics for Santa Ana (presumably a variant of the above), the Stately Southerner and Whisky Johnny are reprinted in full. Itâ€™s thrilling to read about these monthly gatherings and imagine joining them for an evening where stories were swapped, rum was drunk and shanties sung by a â€śgathering of old seamen who will not let them dieâ€ť.
Though working chants would have been employed across the globe throughout history, the sea shanty reached its peak in the mid-1800s; the rhythmic, call-and-response style of these songs was well-suited to the physical, group labour that sailors undertook at sea. Shanties are once again riding high today and seem unlikely, as the old "salts" of the Sailorsâ€™ Club wished, to die out any time soon.
This scrapbook will be freely available to browse online until 22nd February 2021.