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The Fiddler on the Capstan

Saturday Night at Sea by George Cruikshank 1841

Sea Shanties and Maritime Music Days

Jun 12

Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day

Today's Musings, History & Folklore

"And it's windy weather, boys, stormy weather, boys
When the wind blows, we're all together, boys;
Blow ye winds westerly, blow ye winds, blow
Jolly sou'wester, boys, steady she goes"

~ Scottish Sea Shanty

Can you "sing out at a rope"? Would you have been tempted to run away to sea had you lived in the past? If so, you could start your life as a cabin boy and work your way up to admiral as did many famous personages such as Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson! If you were a cabin boy, you would have learned many sea shanties. The word "shanty" is likely derived from the French verb to sing, “chanter”. With the rhythmic beat keeping the teamwork synchronized, singing shanties helped sailors go about their tasks on board like hauling ropes or raising the anchor. Shanties were divided into several categories, named after the work they were used for. There were long haul shanties and short haul shanties for long and short rope pulling. There were windlass shanties for pumping out leaked in water and capstan shanties for raising and lowering the anchor. There was also a fifth kind of sailor song, Foc’sle, forecastle or forebitters, which were songs sung after the work was over. They were named after the sailor’s living quarters, where they would gather around to drink and sing wild ballads. The earliest examples of what is recognized as shanties can be found in Complaynt of Scotland (1549) with songs for "raising the anchor", "heaving on the bowline", and "hoisting the lowyard." Many maritime music festivals are celebrated throughout the year, including prominent ones in Falmouth and Liverpool in the UK; Mystic, CT and Portsmouth NH, and many others!

The Fiddler on the Capstan

A shanty is a rhythmic work song, sung by labourers as they work in large groups at hard, repetitive work.  

Sea shanties first and foremost served a practical purpose.  The rhythmic cadence of the shanty would synchronise the movements of the sailors as they worked.  This was necessary when, for example, weighing anchor or pulling up sails required a strong force of unified strength.  

The songs also brought a feeling of solidarity to the crew, and could be uplifting to the spirits of the sailors.  Many sailors of old had not joined voluntarily but had been press-ganged into service, and music providing a bit of solace and distraction as dissent and mutiny had to be avoided at all costs.

See below for a video of the dance performed by the Berkhamsted Strathspey And Reel Club in 2013.

And for more fascinating facts about sea shanties, click the cabin boy and his mop, 1799.  

The Fiddler on the Capstan
The Fiddler on the Capstan

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