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SEA SHANTIES (singular "shanty", also spelled "chantey"; derived from the French word "chanter", 'to sing') were shipboard working songs. Predominantly an American, Canadian and British phenomenon (some Continental countries frowned on singing at sea), shanties flourished from at least the fifteenth century through the days of steam ships in the first half of the 20th century. Most surviving shanties date from the nineteenth and (less commonly) eighteenth centuries.
In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: the rhythm of the song served to synchronize the movements of the shipworkers as they toiled at repetitive tasks. They also served a social purpose: singing, and listening to song, is pleasant; it alleviates boredom, and lightens the burden of hard work, of which there was no shortage on long voyages.
Most shanties are "call and response" songs, with one voice (the shantyman) singing the line and the chorus of sailors bellowing the response. For example, the shanty "Boney":
The "pulls" would be on the last syllable of the response in each line.
Shanties may be divided into several rough categories:
The above categories are not absolute. Sailors could (and did) take a song from one "type" and, with necessary alterations to the rhythm, use it for a different task. The only rule that was almost always followed was that songs that spoke of returning home were only sung on the homeward leg, and songs that sung of the joys of voyaging etc., were only sung on the outward leg. Other songs were very specific. "Poor Old Man" (also known as "The Dead Horse") was sung once the sailors had worked off their advance (the "horse") a month or so into the voyage. "Leave Her, Johnny Leave Her" (also known as "Time for Us to Leave Her") was only sung during the last round of pumping the ship dry once it was tied up, prior to leaving the ship at the end of the voyage.
The shantyman was a sailor who led the others in singing. He was usually self-appointed. A sailor would not generally sign on as a shantyman per se, but took on the role in addition to their other tasks on the ship. Nevertheless, sailors reputed to be good shantymen were valuable and respected — it was a good professional skill to have, along with strong arms and back.
Historically, shanties were usually not sung ashore. Today, they are performed as popular music. Shanty choirs, often large choral groups that perform only sea shanties, are popular in Europe, particularly Poland and the Netherlands, but also countries such as Germany and Norway. In English-speaking countries, sea shanties are comparatively less popular as a separate genre and tend to be performed by smaller groups as folk music rather than in a choral style.
All though the "days of the tall ships" are over, the shanty song style is still used for new musical compositions. Well known examples include the Stan Rogers song, "Barrett's Privateers," the Steve Goodman song, "Lincoln Park Pirates," and the theme song for the television show SpongeBob Squarepants (a version of "Blow the Man Down").