Of Shanties, Forebitters and other Songs of the Sea

Nov 21, 2022 

By Philip Pearson

It is commonly known that sailors aboard the tall ships traditionally sang as they worked together to haul on an anchor or hoist a sail. But many sea shanties have origins that can be traced further back, to the rhythmic work songs of enslaved Africans working on plantations in the Caribbean or the southern United States. During the off-season, slaves would often be hired as river boatmen, transporting cotton or other goods down the great rivers of the Americas, such as the Mississippi or the Esequibo in Guyana, or as crew aboard ships bound for the Caribbean. So the songs would merge and adapt to the ways of men on river boats, as well as on fishing, whaling or tall merchant ships.  

Of the many collections of sea shanties, few acknowledge their Black origins in quite this way. Stan Hughill, in his Shanties from seven seas, attributes 120 shanties to their Black African-American origins. 

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, spent five years a sailor in the 1840s, and said of his time at sea,

“I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no-one happened to strike up, and the pulling whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, “Come, men, can’t any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead!”  

Life on board could be brutal and hard, for crewmen would be sent aloft to their task whatever the weather and condition of the sea. Sea shanties were call-and-response songs often led by a solo singer, the shantyman, to make the crew’s efforts more effective by working in unison. 

Aboard ship, there were two main types of physical labour, hauling and heaving.

Halyard shanties were marked by the pull-and-go rhythm of ‘hauling the yards’ (ropes) to raise or lower a sail. Shanties such as “Blood red roses” or “Blow the man down” were used to help raise and lower heavy sails, requiring sustained effort and longer pulls.  

Blood red roses 

Our boots and clothes is all in pawn.

Go down, you blood red roses, go down!

It’s a damn long way around Cape Horn.

Go down, you blood red roses, go down.

Oh you pinks and poses,

Go down, you blood red roses, go down!

Blow the man down

As I was a walking down Paradise street

Way-ay blow the man down!

A pretty young damsel I happened to meet.

Give me some time to blow the man down.


Blow the man down, bullies, 

Blow the man down.

Way-ay blow the man down!

Oh, blow the man down, bullies, blow him away!

Give me some time to blow the man down!

The short-haul shanties, such as Haul on the bowline  were for tasks needing a quick burst of energy and short pulls, 

Haul on the bowline, the bully ships a rolling,

Haul on the bowline, the bowline haul!

Haul on the bowline, Kitty is my darling.

Haul on the bowline, the bowline haul!

Heaving shanties, such as “Randy Dandy-Oh”, “Santiana” and “New York Girls” were sung when working the capstan or windlass. Capstan shanties were carried along by the tramping rhythm of men turning round a capstan to raise an anchor and chain, weighing 10 to 20 tons or more, or to pump out bilge water from deep down the hold, a much detested task. 

Randy Dandy-Oh

Now we are ready to head for the Horn. 

Wey hey roll and go!

Our boots and our clothes boys are all in the pawn.

Timmee rollicking randy Dandy-oh!


Heave a pawl and heave away.

Wey hey roll and go!

The anchor’s aboard and the cable all stored.

Timmee rollicking randy Dandy-oh!

‘Heave a pawl’ means to push together on the capstan bars as she wound up the anchor rope. But this one carries a not-so-subtle message. Karen Dolby reckons that ‘Randy Dandy’ is a derogatory references to how sailors viewed the ship’s often upper class officers. 



Santiana gained the day.

Away Santiana!

He gained the day at Monterey

And across the plains of Mexico!


And it’s heave her up and away we’ll go,

Away Santiana!

Heave her up and away we’ll go,

Across the plains of Mexico!

This much loved song celebrates the supposed victory of a Mexican general at the battle of Molina Del Rey in 1847. The song was very popular among British sailors, many of whom had deserted to join Santa Ana’s army. In truth, he was defeated, but that’s shanties for you. It’s a typical song for the capstan or windlass, and is much revived in today’s shanty tradition. 

New York Girls

As I walked down the Broadway, one evening in July,

I met a maid who asked my trade, ‘A sailor John,’ says I.

And away you Santy, my dear Annie,

Oh, you New York girls, can’t you dance the polka


Says she, you lime juice sailor, now see me home you may.

But when we reached her cottage door, she this to me did say.

And away you Santy, my dear Annie,

Oh, you New York girls, can’t you dance the polka

The band aboard HMS Challenger. Source: Challenger Report

Forebitter Songs

And when the sailors’ working day was done, they would head below deck to their quarters in the forecastle for a meal, a smoke and a round of ‘forebitter’ songs. Their name derives from the bit of the ship where the off-duty singing usually took place: the forecastle, or ‘forebit.’ The ballads, such as “Rolling down to old Maui” and “High Barbaree”, are longer narratives, typically describing a sailor’s longing for home, the hardships of life on board, perhaps an officers’ harsh treatment, being cheated in love, or an historical event. 

The forebitters have a more relaxed and less ‘call and response’ feel to them, with less room for lyrical improvisation. Although they are usually maritime themed, forebitters can be and have been about anything. They are often accompanied by light, portable instruments like a tin whistle, fiddle or concertina. Nowadays, these songs are often accompanied by a wider range of instruments when performed by less traditional groups. 

In keeping with the shanty tradition, new songs and arrangements are continually being written and performed. Barrett’s Privateers, a song with enduring appeal, was written by Stan Rogers in 1976. It’s part of the repertoire of the Silver Darlings, an all-female sea shanty crew from Southend-on-Sea 

The London Sea Shanty Collective has developed new arrangements of traditional shanties as well as composing new songs of the sea. In 2019, the group performed Chris Wilson’s Hull folk opera, “The Earl De Grey”. Set in west Hull’s Hessle Road fishing community in the early 1950s, the opera tells the story of Rita Scarr, her husband Jack and how their precarious lives become intertwined with Ezra, who works at Hull’s infamous house of ill repute, the Earl de Grey. 

The Collective has adapted a traditional capstan shanty, “Doodle Let Me Go” or “Yellow Girls”, into the new song, “Skipper Girls”, with lyrics that are not racist or misogynistic for modern times, by present and former members, Vick De Rijke and the Norfolk Broads, and arranged by Will Rivers. The song now tells the tale of a feisty woman who runs away to sea, learns the trade and becomes a skipper of an all-female ship. “The Slaves Lament”, the abolitionist poem by Robbie Burns in 1792, was arranged for the group by Laila Sumpton and Owen Shiers. “Valparaiso”, based on the longing for news from home in the letters of a Challenger crewman, Joe Matkin, includes lyrics by Philip Pearson and Nony Ardill, and arrangements by Maggie Boyd and Chris Wilson.

But many would acknowledge the lasting beauty of the great traditional sea shanties. “Shallow Brown”, which, according to Stan Hughill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961), started life as a pumping song, possibly of West Indian origin. The history website Mainly Norfolk suggests the song is about a mixed heritage person who was enslaved and then freed. Hughill traces the origins of “Stormalong”, sung to work on a windlass or the pump, to African -American folk songs of the 1830s and ‘40s.

As one marine scientist told me recently, ‘The biologists (of whom I was one) always did a lot of singing when we went to sea, but dominated by enthusiasm rather than ability. We even had our own Discoverysong book ranging from genuine shanties to Tom Jones’ Delilah!’

One thing is for certain: there is no ’correct’ version of any sea shanty.


Mainly Norfolk for more information on the origins of songs and the many versions and arrangements: https://www.mainlynorfolk.info/folk/

Sea shanties: the lyrics and history of Sailor Songs, Karen Dolby (2021).

Shanties from the Seven Seas, Stan Hughill (1961).

London Sea Shanty Collective: https://londonseashantycollective.com/