One of the great perks of having a Spotify-equipped smartphone is that I can listen to my playlist of sea chanties wherever I go. With the tap of a touchscreen, I can turn mundane commuter purgatories like the subway and the one tunnel outside Suburban station where the train always goes realllly sloooowly into a vessel drunkenly bobbing on the whitecaps of the high seas!
I hate to call myself a trendsetter, mostly because sea chanties are not actually trendy, but suffice to say that if they DO ever enjoy a resurgence I want at least a footnote on Wikipedia. Because I love ’em! It’s weird! Whatever! Sea chanties possess two different but not wholly incompatible aesthetics for me: the jolly, rum-soaked “hey ho” type songs about sweet Roseanna or getting shipped to South Australia, and the wrenchingly poignant ballads of lands and love lost to the LIFE OF THE SEA. I start to get REALLY emotional about the plight of cod-fishermen in Newfoundland. They had to work so HARD and the sea was CHILLY and FULL OF DEATH and England was VERY VERY FAR AWAY >:(
And why should I care? I’m not from Newfoundland, I think fish is disgusting, and I don’t even like being on boats, especially! But there you go. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas. Le bon vin m’endort, l’amour me reveille. Maybe it’s like how country music is really popular in South Africa, or maybe I’m an 18th-century fisherman stuck in a 21st-century girl’s body, or maybe songs of the sea are so transcendent and universal that they can set even the stoniest heart (i.e., mine) aflame with longing.
Anyway, I don’t know what to make of this obsession except that maybe I should learn how to play one of those little Mr. Smee accordions. But if you’re looking to start a sea-chanty obsession of your very own, I present you with the following primer.
(NOTE: If you are a jerk and just went to look up “sea chanty” on Wikipedia, you will notice that there is a very technical definition. How technical? THIS technical:
A sea shanty, chantey, or chanty is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels. The term shanty most accurately refers to a specific style of work song belonging to this historical repertoire.
I am going to be much more generous with my criteria and define sea chanty as “song about some aspect of maritime life, or maybe just about drinking, or maybe that just SOUNDS like it could’ve been sung by sailors at some point, okay.”)
This is it, the ultimate song of seabound camaraderie by the ultimate Canadian latter-day sea chanteur. I probably shouldn’t put it first because it’s so definitively good, but I also can’t NOT start with it—particularly because this video is SO GOOD. Just a bunch of 70s-era guys in wide collars and neckerchiefs singing their hearts out and thumping a rhythm on a Nova Scotian kitchen table.
I have taught my entire family this song, including my favorite 8-year-old child, who can sing the whole thing from memory and does the “God DAMN THEM ALL” with particular gusto. We sing it every Thanksgiving.
On the “unhappy songs about longing” side of chanties, though, this one is probably your apotheosis. It works on a literal sadness level (the Franklin expedition was so tragically doomed!) and a metaphorical sadness level (because what is LIFE if not “tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage”). All is vanity, Canada is very cold, and the harmonies on this are hard to sing. The end.
Le Bon Vin
It’s a drinking song, but the French makes it classy. “Good wine puts me to sleep but love wakes me up again,” innit that cute. These guys are also Canadian and do a mean bodhran.
Back in the day, Australia was not a good place to go! It meant you were a criminal and likely to die being stung to death by killer spiders the size of Uluru. This one could feasibly work as an actual work song because it name-drops heaving and hauling, which are very important.
By contrast, England was a place that seamen (heh) missed a lot. They were stuck in Newfoundland, far from children and wives, and for WHAT—cod? Gross!
Black Sails Theme and Variations
Not even really a chanty! Whatever! This is the theme song to a show I have never seen and know pretty much nothing about except that it has some SICK hurdy-gurdy riffs in its opening number. I hear this and I’m like “lace up my corset extra tight and GRAB MY CUTLASS because we are TAKING TO THE SEAS.”
Le reel à bouche
Just a lot of guys going “hey dum de dum” a lot, but in a rhythmic and exciting and French way.
The River Driver
I maintain that sea chanties do not forcément have to involve the sea—any body of water will do, even a river. Et voilà! A song of toil and wasted life aboard a fluvial vessel.
The Parting Glass
A good song about leaving, or dying, or both. I have been known to sing this a cappella around bonfires when the mood strikes.