Mystic Seaport has been a center for sea music performance since the early 1970s. The Museum’s annual Sea Music Festival brings together performers and participants from around the world. But you can hear sea music performed almost daily at Mystic Seaport when the Museum’s chanteymen perform at different locations around the grounds. Plan to sing along!
Music of the Sea and Shore
Music of the sea came in two forms: the work songs called chanteys and leisure-time songs and instrumental pieces.
Chanteys take several forms. Capstan chanteys are long, evenly paced songs to ease the job of walking around a vertical winch called a capstan, which was used to raise the anchor. Capstan bars set into the capstan like spokes of a wheel gave the crew leverage to turn the capstan as they marched around it, often for an hour or more.
Halyard chanteys were used to coordinate the crew while raising sail. In this call-and-response style of song, the chanteyman sang a one-line verse as the crew rested, and the crew answered with a chorus that had two strong beats on which they pulled. For heavier hauling, a short-drag chantey had a one-beat chorus. Similar work songs were used by longshoremen loading heavy cargo and by fishermen handling heavy nets.
As the sea connected cultures, during the 1800s these songs developed to combine aspects of Irish and African musical traditions. “Chanteyman” was not an official position on board ship, but a sailor with a good voice and a quick wit was valuable in keeping the crew happy and efficient at its work. The chanteyman often improvised to make light of conditions, food, or other crew members, giving the sailors a little control over their situation.
Leisure-time songs and instrumental pieces were a mixture of popular songs and ballads of the day and improvised tunes made up on board. It was common for at least one sailor on board to have a banjo, concertina, fiddle, or other instruments, and to play during the two-hour, late-afternoon dog watch that served as the crew’s daily leisure time.