by Dr. Jennifer Searcy, Museum Director and Tricia Menke, Curator of Education
In 2021, the United States Navy Band released a sea shanty-styled cover of popular music singer and songwriter Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” The cover became a viral hit with hundreds of thousands of views and introduced the United States Navy Band to new audiences. When promoting a video of the cover, the Navy’s Chief of Information and Office of Information (CHINFO) highlighted the United States Navy sailor’s long relationship with the sea shanty genre, tweeting “We were into this very much before it was cool.”
While sea shanties have a long relationship with sailors, nautical-themed music began to rise in popularity before the Navy Band’s Taylor Swift cover. The public’s growing interest with nautical music, including sea shanties and “pirate” themed music and culture began in the early 2000s, as exemplified by the Pirates of Caribbean movies.1 This interest exploded in 2020 and 2021 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sea shanties and viral performances of these nautical work songs quickly became viral hits on TikTok. Not just idle entertainment for those isolated in their homes, sea shanties spoke to people through their communal chants and easy adaptability to modern musical lyrics. The songs offered a communal pastime for people isolated in their homes and looking for a way to connect when connections could not be made due to COVID isolation.2 As modern Americans also discovered during COVID isolation, sea shanties historically provided sailors solace, entertainment, and communal opportunities, as they awaited a return to home. Beyond its widespread popularity on social media beginning in the pandemic, the sea shanty is a song style with deep maritime roots that serves as popular connective point for United States Navy sailors.
There is a common misconception that all maritime songs are sea shanties. In actuality, sea shanties are specifically work songs, set to the rhythms of heaving lines, turning the capstan, or other manual labor aboard sailing vessels. As a result, proper sea shanties were only sung by American sailors for a short period of time, beginning with the establishment of the U.S. Navy in 1775 and ending with the demise of the Age of Sail, roughly at the end of the Civil War. The exact origin of the term “shanty” is unknown and there is debate about the proper spelling. Some historians believe the term is derived from the French word, “chanter,” meaning “to sing” and should therefore be spelled “chanties.” Others maintain the spelling “shanties,” claiming the word refers to the shanties along the Mobile, Alabama waterfront where many of the tunes were learned by sailors.3 Regardless of the spelling, music historians agree that shanties are work songs.
Ships are complicated machines and each piece must work perfectly for the vessel to sail successfully. Sea shanties provided guidance for the crews, while also keeping them in sync. The songs’ rhythms caused everyone to push or pull simultaneously, hence causing a concerted effort and better results. All chanties are divided into three distinct classes: Short-drag chanties, used when a few strong pulls were needed; long-drag chanties, longer songs to speed the work of long-haul jobs; and heaving chanties, used for jobs requiring continuous action such as turning the capstan. One man, the chanty-man, stood high above the working crew and sang the main lines while the rest of the crew added their voices strongly on the second line. On the last word, a combined pull made the ropes “come home.” A good chanty-man was highly prized by officers and crew alike. Although he had no official title or rate, he was usually relieved of all duties to compose new verses for sea chanties. While shanties at their core were a practical tool for improving work aboard ship, they also provided entertainment and camaraderie amongst sailing crews. This added bonus was especially important amongst the blue collar sailors who came from far-flung backgrounds.
Early Navy crews were not the perfectly uniform-clad, straight-line sailors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Instead, Age of Sail sailors were a rough and tumble, diverse group whose experiences greatly influenced the new U.S. Navy. Sea shanties are one such example of how sailors shaped Navy traditions. Early sailors moved between the military and merchant sailing worlds regularly during the Age of Sail and when they joined the Navy, they brought these work songs with them. The Navy and merchant service attracted men with sailing skills, who often grew up along the waterways, learning the tools of the trade from a young age. Their backgrounds were diverse, ranging from poor white immigrants to enslaved people. Each of these groups brought their own traditions to their sailing careers, including music. At sea, these demographic groups melded together, working in tandem away from the structures of American and European societies. As they worked alongside one another, the music, dances, and lyrics of their cultures combined into its own genre of music – the sea shanty. Just like the working songs of field slaves, these sea shanties provided a pace at which to work and a camaraderie amongst the crew.4 Often, these sailors jumped back and forth between naval and merchant service, creating a fluid environment for the sea shanties themselves.
However, as the Navy embraced technological advances in the second half of the nineteenth century, the need for work songs diminished and the sea shanty fell out of Navy tradition. Navy music remained, but the work songs of the sailing era quickly faded. However, the Navy has always embraced its history and in the 1950s, the U.S. Navy Band revived the sea shanty for the first time. In 1956, LT Harold Futz, then the band’s assistant leader, organized a vocal group from the Navy School of Music to sing chanteys and patriotic songs for the State of the Nation Dinner. Then Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke was so impressed by the ensemble’s chanty performance, he requested the group be transferred to the Navy Band, named them the Sea Chanters, and tasked the all-male group with perpetuating the songs of the sea.5 Over the next several years, the Sea Chanters saw great success, even traveling to West Berlin in 1961 as part of a diplomatic effort in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. In 1980, the group added women to the group, expanding their repertoire, and eventually embracing pop music, such as Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” Today, the Sea Chanters are frequently found at the center of our most important national events, including inauguration day performances, state funerals, and times of national mourning. They have played a vital role in comforting the nation in times of mourning, including appearances at memorials for the astronauts of the space shuttle Columbia and the presidential wreath laying ceremony at the United Airlines flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.6 Just as the Navy’s earliest sailors came together over sea shanties in the sailing age, today’s sailors are bonded by the shared melodies of an earlier era.
1. James Revell Carr, “New Sea Chantey Compilations on Compact Disc,” The Journal of American Folklore, Spring 2009, vol. 122, no. 484. Accessed October 20, 2022.
2. Kyle Piscioniere, “Sea Shanty TikTok is on Fire,” Slate, January 13, 2021. https://slate.com/culture/2021/01/sea-shanty-tiktok-wellerman-trend-explained.html
3. W.M. Doerflinger, Shantymen and Shantyboys: Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1951.
4. Christopher J. Smith, “Blacks and Irish on the Riverine Frontiers: The Roots of American Popular Music,” Southern Cultures, Spring 2011, vol. 17, no. 1. Accessed October 20, 2022.