Many of you fellow strummers and gentle readers have visited Alison’s and my home over the years for various musical get-togethers. Needless to say, I enjoyed showing off my collection of vintage ukuleles and banjos. But, a few of the more curious of you may have noticed another hobby of mine—making scale models, particularly model ships. I’ve been doing this off and on since the 1980s and, with the sequestration brought on by Covid, contentedly continue. With my ukulele collection, I can hang them on the wall for all to see. Alas, my many (too many?) models are a bit bulkier to display and, as Alison has pointed out from time to time, just a tad (She may have used some stronger terms!) overwhelming.
Nonetheless, life goes on more smoothly when I can combine my two rather benign proclivities—collecting ukes and building ships—and muse on the “marriage of song and sail.”
So, let’s take a look at that sailor song genre known as “Sea Shanties.” While our Blue and Yellow Books include a number of tunes with nautical themes, there is only one that has a place on the wet wood deck of a working ship in the days of the daily “grog” ration: “Drunken Sailor.”
Just to get the old earworm going, click or tap on the next image or link to follow the lyrics and hear an on-shore take on our tune.
More about our tune a bit further on, but first some background.
The origins of the traditional sailors’ Sea Shanty have been lost in the mists of time. Traceable from at least the mid-1400s, the shanty (or sometimes “chanty”) hails from the olden days of “wood ships and iron men.”
To hoist up your mood and give you some salt-sea exposure, tap or click on the next image or link to see and hear shanties sung as part of that great sea-going film of the 1950s, “Moby Dick.” Alas, this is a Spanish language version, except for the shanties!
The shanty was, quite simply, a rhythmic “work song” sung by sailors involved in heavy, tedious manual tasks, such as tramping round the capstan to raise an anchor or hoisting the sails for departure.
In technical terms, this helped synchronize individual efforts to efficiently execute a collective task. Simply, it made sure that each sailor pushed or pulled as needed and at precisely the same time. The key to making this happen was to sing (or chant) each song, or shanty, in different rhythms for different tasks often to the beat of a drum, toot of a fife, or hum of a fiddle.
For example, “Drunken Sailor” was considered a “short-haul” shanty designed for tasks requiring quick pulls over a relatively short time with a beat of four “pulls” per verse. All hands roared out the song in unison, as they hoisted a sail or raised an anchor. Hence the chorus: “Wey, hey, up she rises.“
Tap or click on the next image or link to listen to our song performed with more of an emphasis on the required beat–as well as a few more verses!
More often than not there would be a solo-singer, a “shanty man,” who would lead the singing with the crew joining in for the chorus—typical of the myriad of “call and response” work songs common on the farm or railroad in the days before machine labor. Sometimes even ukulele could be used! But I digress.
With no special requirements other than to hold a seaman’s attention, as well as make light of a hard and repetitive job, virtually any song could be adopted for this purpose, provided it was delivered at the required tempo—and, almost always, with some, shall we say, ribald or, in fact, downright raunchy innuendo.
Far from delicate ears, boys will be boys and sailors will be sailors—especially on those long, lonely, and dangerous voyages. The only exception, I assume, was when a captain’s wife and family, so-called “petticoat sailors,” were aboard.
Now, back to our song. “Drunken Sailor” was sung onboard sailing ships at least as early as the 1830s and it shares its melody with the traditional Irish “welcome home” song “Oro Se do Bheatha Bhaile.” Click or tap on the next image or link to hear this tune sung by Irish school children and get hints of the parallel melody line. Cute kids, too!
Our song’s lyrics will vary from ship to crew, but usually contain some variant of a discussion by fellow seamen of just what to do with an overly inebriated crew mate found still abed when he, like they, should be up and about. Each successive verse suggests a method, humorous or painful, of sobering or punishing the sodden seaman.
Now, a disclaimer! Purged of the myriad anatomical, scatological, or sexual references one might find in other, more scholarly texts, I, good readers, have included YouTubes of only the most G-rated ones I could find. For the sake of tender ears, you’ll have to pursue other, more colorful examples on our own! Happy Googling!
“Drunken Sailor” was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the mid-20th century folk revival with recordings by groups like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. It grew to become one of the best-known songs of the shanty repertoire among mainstream audiences. It has been performed and recorded by many musical artists and appeared regularly in popular culture.
It has been said that the reason these old shanties have bobbed back to the surface in today’s culture, which finds many of us adrift one way or another, is that “Everybody can join in and you don’t necessarily need to be able to sing.” Just for fun, click or tap on the next image or link to see a dancing version of our song.
To haul things in, here is one of the best renditions of our song sung by real British seamen in the film “Fisherman’s Friend”—a must-see movie if you like these salty songs of the sea. Click or tap on the next image or link to give a listen and join the party.
And, finally, click or tap on the next image or link for a finger-picking ukulele version of our song just so you float away with the melody!
So fellow strummers, stay safe, stay sequestered (with your crew, of course), stay masked,
and STAY TUNED!
And, of course, enjoy a shanty or two—with rum of course! Or, if wine’s your thing . . .