Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Holy Shit, Shanties!

Have you ever seen a wild goose sailing on the ocean?
Wild Goose
Who hasn't these days?
If you answered "Ranzo, Ranzo Ray," (or some variation) you're probably very much familiar with sea shanties. Because that is one. And you're weird.

Sea shanties emerged around the 19th Century as a specific type of work song (though some theorize this was when they were revived from obscurity, not born). They were chiefly an English language phenomenon inspired in large part by African work songs. Just let that sink in for a second, considering the nature of the relationship between Europeans and Africans back then.
Inspection of a Slave
Oh, right. The travesties.

They existed because work on a sailing ship is difficult, laborious, repetitive, and requires a high degree of coordination. For example, to set sail on a square-rigged ship, you first need to hoist the yards. That requires a number of people pulling on ropes and pulleys in unison. All it takes is one or two people pulling at the wrong time to get the whole thing out of whack, which could delay departure or even endanger the crew.
Yards of the USS Columbus.
Not like it's confusing to have the same word mean a measurement, field, and part of a sail.

The traditional solution would be to have someone count out, "One, two, three," and have everyone haul on three. That worked well enough, but it was no fun. A better way, certain enterprising sailors decided, was to have a sort of foreman/lead singer, the shantyman, sing out a line or two and have everyone else sing the chorus. For example, when hoisting the yard, the song would go:
Shantyman: Our boots and shoes are all in pawn
Crew: Go down, you blood red roses, go down
Shantyman: Its flaming drafty 'round Cape Horn
Crew: Go down, you blood red roses, go down
On every "Go down," the crew would haul in unison. For a great example of this exact situation, watch the 1956 film Moby Dick. If you're the impatient type, just watch the part below. If you're especially impatient, just go straight to the 1:04 mark. As a bonus, you get "Heave Away Me Johnny" right afterward.

All the classic shanties were associated with certain types of work. "Drunken Sailor," the one you definitely know, was for continuous hauling work. Songs with longer verses would be used for raising the anchor, which involved circling around the capstan over and over to wind the rope. Some songs had extremely specific meanings.

"Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her" was a pump shanty used for the last pump of a voyage -- thus, "Now those pumps are all pumped dry and it's time for us to leave her" means the water is all pumped back into the sea, and the sailors are free to disembark. There's a terrific note of ironic nostalgia in that one. It's about a voyage where everything was as bad as it can be on a sailing ship, but the minor key suggests that everyone is still sad to leave the awful ship behind.
Music can make any ship the Millennium Falcon

Well, the shanties may actually have something to do with that. Recent studies suggest that singing in unison with a group of other people actually makes everyone's hearts literally beat in unison. That sort of connection can't not be powerful, and it may help to explain the cohesiveness of a sailing crew and the pervasiveness of work songs throughout history. That's pure speculation, but it's not that far of a leap.

But that brings us to a problem. Where are our work songs today? When we do menial tasks with other people, we sit in relative silence. We chat sometimes. We even listen to music. But we don't have that quasi-mystical connection that songs can provide. Veteran sailors bemoaned the loss of the sea shanty with the rise of the steam engine, but what if it goes deeper than that? What if we're losing something critical to our innate understanding of the human condition by segregating music from everyday life?

I, for one, will be busy learning all the call-and-response work songs I can manage from now on. When my kids get to an age where putting them to work is reasonable (I'm thinking six months or so), they'll be singing bawdy songs all the while. According to science, that will bring us closer together.
Hauling a Halyard

Holy shit.

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