Music Gallery Introduction by maritime historian Peter McCracken

Music has long played an important role in life at sea. Evidence of music at sea extends as far back as about 2450 BC, in the form of an Egyptian image of a clarinet-like instrument, playing in the bow of a boat in a Giza tomb. Early Vikings and Chinese had professional musicians at sea, and the ancient Greeks used drums to coordinate work on their triremes and other oared vessels. A drum is an important part of keeping rowers working together; a misplaced oar in a row of many on a Greek trireme, or other vessel, could clearly cause significant problems. As vessels grew in size and complexity, they needed more and more hands to work the ship. On naval vessels, this was rarely a problem, as they carried many hands who could be put to work whenever needed. On merchant vessels, however, there was a tendency to sail with fewer hands, to minimize costs and increase profits. Weighing anchor on large vessels required literally hours of monotonous marching around a capstan, and pumping water from the holds could be continuous work. When crews were smaller than might be ideal, the coordinating benefits of sea shanties are obvious. Whether they're simple bunting shanties, such as "You Stole My Boots", or longer and more organized hauling shanties, such as "Boney", the focus brought by the shanties ensures that the crew will lift or haul together, thus amplifying their work.

But when the work is done and the crew is off watch, there's a lot of free time on board a ship - and not a lot of options for entertainment. Forebitters ("shanties" refers to songs that coordinated work; "forebitters" refers to songs sung for pleasure) became a great way to pass the time, to remember home, or to describe ship-board issues without complaining directly to the captain. In "Barney Buntline", sailors in the middle of a massive storm describe their "safe" life at sea. Barney and his mate, Billy Bowline, laugh at the fear felt by those experiencing the storm from land, in the second and third verses of the song:

"An' as for them what lives in towns, what dangers
they all be in,
An' now lay quakin' in their beds for fear the roof
should fall in;
While you an' I, Bill, on the deck are comfortably lyin'.
My eyes! What tiles an' chimney pots about their heads are flyin'!"

"An' as for them what's out all day on business from
their houses,
Returnin' home so late at night to cheer their babes
an' spouses,
Poor creatures how they envy us an' wishes, I've a notion,
For our good luck in such a storm to be upon the ocean."

These sailors view themselves as braver, tougher, and stronger, than their counterparts on land - though, truth be told, they would probably jump at a chance to switch places with those on land, and exchange London's flying chimney pots for the blocks, tackles, lines, and other gear swinging around their heads as they tried to stay safe on board a pitching, tossing, and thoroughly soaked deck at sea. While shanties are not a reliable source for information surrounding a particular event, they are useful in describing and understanding a sailor's way of life. They serve as a collective diary for a group of individuals who generally did not keep diaries, and in fact are one of the very few sources for the views of foremast hands in general. Music at sea was a good way of expressing a sailor's views when speaking them might not have been welcomed. In "Wings of a Goney," whalers lament their difficult life at sea - one that promised them perhaps nothing to show for a multi-year voyage around the world, which they often did not realize until well after the ship had sailed, and there was no chance of backing out. After a series of complaints in multiple verses about their life on board the whaler, they sing:

We go to the agent to settle for the trip,
And there we find cause to repent.
For we've slaved away four long years of our lives,
And we've earned not one red cent.

With few other options for expressing their opinions at sea, songs provided an important outlet for sailors with thoughts to share.

Sea music continues to thrive. Shanties are rarely needed or used except on board historic vessels; even on these vessels, improvements in mechanical hardware often mean that coordinated hauling needs little more than a "two, six, HEAVE" to get the job done. But the stories told in forebitters are well worth sharing, and the existence and growth of sea music festivals shows that there's still much to be said through sailors' songs. Modern-day songwriters like Tom Lewis use the traditional form of music to address issues, both new and old, that face sailors. In "A Sailor Ain't a Sailor," written in the 1980s, Lewis also points out many changes to sailors' experiences at sea; his lyrics in this song intentionally misuse the most basic terms. While the song uses older terms like "killick", "semaphore", and "bunting", the singer also calls a line a "rope", and sings of climbing up the mast, rather than the shrouds, among other mistakes. These are intentional mistakes, however; they were introduced by Lewis to point out the lack of understanding of maritime heritage among many modern sailors.

Life at sea was surprisingly hard, and songs, sung aboard ships from the Age of Sail to today, are an excellent way of learning more about the sailor's view of life at sea. Shanties and forebitters can go a long way to helping us better understand the life and work of sailors before the mast.

We invite you to explore this growing collection of maritime music by these talented performers, attend a maritime music festival, or stop into a pub to listen to a "trad session" and reflect on our maritime past.

- Peter McCracken