Looking for adventures on the high seas without the annoying nausea and having to know your port from your starboard? Do you dream of searching Chatham docks to sign on board the perfect vessel and seek out new exotic lands, spices and STDs? Or maybe you just like thick jumpers and wellies.
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So, because we can – and because you trust us with this sort of thing, for some reason – we’ve put together a beginners’ list of sea shanties (some dating back to the 1800s, some a little less ancient) for you. Just for the halibut.
‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’
Bristol band The Longest Johns do a fine rendition of this old favourite, which was written around 1860. It’s a banger, no doubt, but there are some questionable logistics here: they claimed to have brought sugar, tea and rum from a single voyage is questionable. Rum and sugar are from the West Indies, whereas tea is from China or India, so someone’s Someone’s compass is off.
Fishiest lyric: “One day, when the tonguin’ is done / We’ll take our leave and go.”
‘The Ballad of Simon Diamond’ by The Coral
Liverpool, a coastal city, has always looked out to sea for inspiration. It’s the last stop, or the literal first port of call for those switching places across the Atlantic; many a rock’n’roll record arrived here; many a British invasion commenced. Years before some TikTok hipsters pushed it back into the limelight, The Coral were mixing the sea shanty with pysch rock like it was going out of style… even though it was never really in style.
Fishiest lyric: “Simon Diamond sold his soul / Changed his name by deed poll”
The classic. The standard. The ‘Yesterday’ of the sea shanty world. This sold-gold slapper has appeared in everything from The Two Ronnies to Spongebob Squarepants and Assassins Creed. Having emerged from the heady days of the British Navy, where they raped and pillaged without the United Nations or pesky international law getting in the way, it has been absorbed into popular culture to such a degree that even the annoying toddler in your life will know the tune.
Best lyric: “Shave his belly with a rusty razor / Early in the morning!”
‘Blow the Man Down’
A lot of shanties, much like a lot of Pogues songs, are about getting drunk and somehow ending up in jail – please see ‘Drunken Sailor’ and ‘Sloop John B’ (more of which to come). Not quite the ‘Yesterday’ of shanties, but certainly the ‘Wonderwall’, this ditty is about a ship’s hoisted mainsail getting caught off guard by a gale… just in case that ever comes up in a pub quiz or you happen to be on a 19th Century Ship.
Fishiest lyric: “So I give you fair warning before we belay / Don’t ever take heed of what pretty girls say.”
Coming from the Napoleonic era (much like ABBA’s Waterloo), you can hear this shanty in, amongst other things, Jaws and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This was one of the first sea shanties – so we have it to blame for all the other ones. Written during a time when Britain was defending Spain against Napoleonic France, the lyrics are about the Spanish women British sailors had met, married… and then weren’t allowed to bring home.
Fishiest lyric: “Then it’s stand by your stoppers, steer clear your shank-painters / Haul up your clew garnets, let tacks and sheet fly.”
‘Haul Away Joe’
If there isn’t a small regional haulage company with this name, I will eat my captain’s hat. According to the fascinating website Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music: “This was a favourite short-drag shanty, used almost exclusively for hauling aft the foresheet or sweating-up halyards to take in the slack-jobs that called for a short pull but a good ‘un’.” So that clears that up.
Fishiest lyric: “When I was a little boy my mother always told me / That if I did not kiss the girls, my lips would grow all mouldy.”
There’s a possibility that somewhere, deep down, we as a nation may be so proud of our shanties because they remind us of a time when Britain was a force to be reckoned with and not an international laughing stock. Here, then, is a shanty for a long voyage to, for example, Australia, which used to take as long as four months, which is almost as long as Boris Johnson goes between telling the truth.
Fishiest lyric: “And as we wallop round Cape Horn, heave away, haul away / You’ll wish to God you’ve never been born.”
‘Sloop John B’ by The Beach Boys
Yes – it’s the one from game changing Beach Boys album ‘Pet Sounds’, but it goes a tad further back than 1966. If you think about it, with their a capella vocals and tight harmonies, The Beach Boys were not a million miles away from the sea shanty, ajd this song originated in early 1900s Bahamas – Nassau, to be exact – and was originally called ‘Sloop John B Sails’.
Fishiest lyric: “The poor cook he caught the fits / And threw away all my grits / And then he took and he ate up all of my corn.”