But over at Jstor Daily, Jess Romeo adds some fun controversy to Shantytok. She unearthed a couple of scholarly pieces from the 1920s and 1930s which argue that many of the songs we landlubbers think of as sea shanties aren't actually sea shanties.
Instead, they're … sea songs! Sea songs are different from shanties because sea songs had narrative and musical accompaniment. Shanties didn't; they kept the lyrics much more simple and rhythmic because they were aimed purely at regimenting the pace of work.
So what makes a true shanty? In 1928, scholar William Saunders wrote: "The essential thing in the singing of a shanty…is rhythm." The lyrics are less critical: Often, the words were made up "entirely by the whim or impromptu powers of invention." According to Whates, these simple, rhythmic tunes were meant to "[extract] just that last ounce from men habitually weary, overworked and underfed."
Saunders makes another thing clear: "Sea-shanties…should never be sung with an instrumental accompaniment. A sea-shanty treated in this manner is a complete anachronism." For this reason (among others) Saunders might balk at Shanty-Tok's more complex musical arrangements. Shanties, he argues, are meant to be "crude, ingenuous and unpretentious outpourings of uncultured artistry." (Oh, to imagine his shock and horror at the "Electro-Shanty.") Saunders, who admits to being "unfortunately old enough to have lived in the days when there were still sailing ships upon the sea, and before the last shanty had been sung by genuine sailor men," cites "Bound for the Rio Grande" as "the best of all the shanties." Other examples of shanties include the classic "What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor" and the ceremonial "Dead Horse."
(CC-2.0-licensed photo of a sea shanty festival courtesy the Flickr stream of Mossy Carey)