Sea Shanties

The book, A Challenger’s Song, makes frequent reference to sea shanties, they may be work songs or tell a story of some aspect of a sailor’s life.

Valparaiso is about a sailor’s longed-for letters from home. Turkey Bones is about a hungry crew. The Ocean is about exploring the mysteries of the deep. Silvertown is a protest song for workers making the undersea cables for the ‘Victorian internet.’  Skipper Girls is a re-worked traditional song now telling the tale of a feisty woman who runs away to sea, learns the trade and becomes a skipper of an all-female crew. 

Of Shanties, Forebitters and other Songs of the Sea


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 Discovery song 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:

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

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

London Sea Shanty Collective:



November 1875: Challenger at anchor off the island of Juan Fenandez (‘Crusoe’s Island’).  A few days later she docked, at last, at the Chilean port of Valparaiso.

Honolulu, July 28 1875. After three long years at sea, Joe Matkin wrote in a letter home: ‘The mail is in, and there is not a single letter or newspaper for me from anyone; now I shall have to wait until we reach Valparaiso in November…it is nearly a twelve-month since I heard from you or the boys. If you have any bad news to tell, it is better to tell it at once, than leave people to “think and fear”. I suppose I shall get a heavy mail in Valparaiso, but we shan’t be there for three months yet.’

Nony and I were walking home from the park one day and, listening to me singing the verses, Nony said it needed a chorus as all shanties do.

Lyrics: Philip Pearson and Nony Ardill; arrangement Maggie Boyd and Benni Lees-MacPherson.

Download a PDF of the music here.

Pacific Ocean, vast and wide,

Vast and wide

No sail in sight, sail in sight, 

Nor bird’s eye,

No word from home until they dock , 

No word from home until they dock,

No word from home until they dock at Valparais-oh.  

And the men stand restless on the deck,


Standing restless on deck,

Restless on deck,

As the purser cuts the letter sack,

Cuts the letter sack,

Names a man for whom the wait 

Names a man for whom the wait,

Names a man for whom the wait now is ending.


So that brave and fearless man,

Fearless man

No seaman’s task beyond his hand,

Beyond his hand,

Now grips upon on his prize 

Now grips upon on his prize,

Now grips upon on his prize to hide the trembling.


With his longed for letter home,

Letter home,

Hurries off, must be alone, 

Must be alone,

Alone with words to carry him home,

Alone with words to carry him home,

Alone with words to see him home or ease a longing,

Ease his longing.


It’s been three long years at sea.

Will you remember me,

Like I remember you?

Will you remember me?

Skipper Girls

Shanties are the call-and-response work songs used on the square-rigged ships of the age of sail. The shanties served two good purposes: to coordinate strenuous effort through rhythmic singing and keep up morale. Sailors say ‘a shanty means another hand on the rope.’

Onboard ship, every shanty was bent to a task: whether for a short or long drag on a yard (rope) to hoist a sail, turning the capstan or windlass, raise or lower the anchor, or to operate the bilge pump.

As a folk tradition, there are those who believe they must be sung pure, without harmony or changing lyrics. But research suggests these jewels of cultural heritage originating from England, Ireland, Africa, the West Indies and America took harmonies from enslaved and black sailors and in fact changed all the time, as they still do. As is the case with Skipper Girls.

Skipper Girls is a traditional capstan shanty with new lyrics for modern times. It’s sung by the London Sea Shanty Collective to the original tune, Doodle Let Me Go. The song has a lovely melody but the lyrics we found too racist and sexist to sing. So this is our version, rewritten by present and former members of the London Sea Shanty Collective:  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.



Captain Christian West (1829-1895)

First, I told me ma and pa I couldn’t stay at home

Hoorah, me skipper gals, doodle let me go

They locked me in me room and then they left me there alone

Hoorah, me skipper gals, doodle let me go


Doodle let me go me gals, doodle let me go,

Hoorah, me skipper gals, doodle let me go


I broke out of the choke, me boys, and got down to the coast

I cut me gorgeous locks off short, wore britches and a coat


I jumped aboard a sailing ship, bound for Cally-O

Hauled until me fingers bled, as good as any Joe


I done me duty like a man, did reef and steer and sew,

Worked me butt off like the rest; the Cap’n didn’t know


And when we landed on the docks, ashore the men did go

I followed them to sailor town; & searched both high and low


I drew a crew of lasses bold, and them on board did stow

We hauled aboard the anchor and a-sailing we did go


And now we sail the seven seas with not a man to show

What matters is the job in hand, not what we’ve got below


Doodle let me go me gals, doodle let me go,

Hoorah, me skipper gals, doodle let me go

Hoorah, me skipper gals, doodle let me go


Captain Christian West

The China Run, based on Neil Paterson’s family history, tells the story of his sailor great grandmother, Christian West (1829-1895), who took command of her husband’s ship after he died at sea in 1802. Unwilling to be left ashore during her husband’s long absences, she accompanied him and learned the arts of navigation and sailing. When he died during a voyage, she took command of the ship and held her own as a clipper captain for many years.


Turkey Bones

Challenger Band. Challenger collection, Natural History Museum

This song is inspired by a hungry sailor. In December 1872, one of Joe Matkin’s first letters home tells the story of the roast turkey stolen on from the kitchen on Christmas day before it could reach the officer’s table. ‘I’d have liked to pick a bit off that turkey myself,’ he writes. ‘I have never been so hungry as the last few days. It’s a regular man-o’-war diet now we’re on. And us only sporting a pair of cannon.’ 

The song was ‘premiered’ by the London Sea Shanty Collective on Greenland Dock during the 2019 Totally Thames Festival.

Download a PDF of the music here.

 Turkey Bones

 There’s a truth that follows each sailor,

Across the ocean blue

You’ll never get fat on a sailor’s tuck,

‘Less we nicks a bit more for the crew.


We was five days out from Pompey

And already getting thinner,

When somebody nicked the Turkey all dressed  

For the officers’ Christmas Day dinner.


There was a hell of a hallaballoo

Captain roaring like a gale,

They found Turkey bones and a nice pinch of salt

Tucked away in the topgallant sail.


We was six days out from Pompey

And still we’re getting thinner,

When somebody nicked the Goose all dressed,

For the officers’ Boxing Day dinner.


There was a hell of a hallaballoo

Captain roaring for his supper,

They found Goos-e’s bones and a nice pinch of salt

Tucked away in the old packet’s scuppers.


Well, we was nine days out from Pompey

And getting thinner & thinner,

When somebody nicked the Ducks all dressed,

For the officers’ New Year’s Day dinner.


There was a hell of a hallaballoo

Captain singing the same old carol,

They found the Duck’s bones and a nice pinch of salt

Tucked away in the ten-pounder’s barrel.


So here’s to that poor hungry sailor,

Just one of Challenger crew,

He never got fat in his purse or his paunch, 

And bejazuss neither would you.


Lyrics: Philip Pearson. Arrangement: Maggie Boyd and Jane Perrot.

The Ocean

Challenger was converted from a 22-gun man-o-war into a floating laboratory – a man-o-science. All but two of her cannon were lifted away to make room for workshops, a photographic laboratory, thermometers, microscopes, thousands of specimen jars, and cabins for the team of six scientists.  Her Captain was George Nares, while the eminent Scottish naturalist, Professor Wyville Thomson, led the team of six scientists, 

The objects of the expedition were: 

  • to sound the ocean depths and study its currents;
  • to dredge for whatever unknown species lay below;
  • to chart new routes for submarine telegraph cables linking Britain to Empire; 
  • wherever they might land, to observe the flora and fauna; and, it must be said, 
  • to observe the ‘native races’ they encountered.

 Ahead lay the great ocean depths, til then, in Professor Thomson’s words, ‘a closed book to mankind.’ 

 The Ocean was published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1825. We have adapted the final verse to the Challenger’s mission: ‘We-re bound to sound the ocean deep…’:

The Ocean

The Ocean has its silent caves,

Deep, quiet, and alone;

Though there be fury on the waves,

Beneath them there is none.


The awful spirits of the deep

Hold their communion there;

And there are those for whom we weep,

The young, the bright, the fair.


Calmly the wearied seamen rest

Beneath their own blue sea.

The ocean solitudes are blest,

For there is purity.


We’re bound to sound the Ocean deep,

Her treasures to unseal, 

And rouse the sailor from his sleep, 

As now we lift the veil.


Silvertown is a protest song.

The Challenger expedition also had a hard-headed geo-political purpose for the British government. Obtaining accurate profiles of the ocean floor was essential for laying undersea telegraph cables – an expanding ‘Victorian internet’ – from London to Europe, to the Empire and its colonies, and to the Americas.

The network was massively subsidised by the Government, spurring the growth of new industries along the Thames. Much of the cabling was manufactured at Samuel Silver’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Works in East London.

Yet, as John Tully’s study reveals, the workforce was ‘ill-fed, ill-paid, ill-housed, and ill-used.’ For the thousands Silver employed, factory hours were grindingly long, hard and insecure. For a few pence an hour, they worked in poisonous mixtures of rubber, sulphur and benzine, melted in blast furnace heat. In September 1889, spurred on by the recent match girls and dockers’ tanner strikes, the workers began a four-month strike, part of the growing formation of new unions for the general worker. Their protest upended the London industrial district which bore their employer’s name: Silvertown.

 Samuel Silver’s factory, East London, around 1880

From the 1889 strike at Silvertown, east London, sprung new unions for working men and women, including the first women’s branch of the new National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers. The London Sea Shanty Collective commemorated the strike with this song, Silvertown, as part of the 2020 Totally Thames Festival. Music by Ruth Renfrew, lyrics by Philip Pearson.

Download the music here.


Back in 1888

First the match girls out the gate.

Then dockers won their tanner,

Now we raise the Silver banner,

Join the union today. 


We’re marching down to Silver Town,

Early in the morning.

We’ll shut old Silver’s factory down,

A new day is dawning.


Plantation rubber rolls up river,

Up the Thames to Mr Silver.

Now we slave on the factory floor,

70 hours a week – No more!

Join the union today.




Farthings more is all we ask

For the rubber melt and furnace blast.

Women getting equal pay,

Send the blacklegs on their way,

Join the union today.




Sugar and spice and all things nice

They come rolling up the river.

And rubber and tar they ain’t so nice,  

Send old Silver down the river. 

Join the union today.




Ten thousand march to Vicky Park

We go marching in the morning, 

With a fife and drum and Eleanor Marx,

We see a new day dawning, 

Join the union today. 

The Slaves Lament

The song, written by Robbie Burns in 1792, was arranged for the London Sea Shanty Collective by Laila Sumpton and Owen Shiers. 

In September 1873, with only a few buckets of coal remaining in the hold, Challenger docked at the Brazilian port of Bahia Bay. On the quay, Joe Matkin was witness to the brutal ill-treatment of enslaved men whom the captain hired to load the coal. Brazil continued to import Africans, legally and illegally, well into the nineteenth century before officially ending slavery in 1888. Bahia alone imported more than 1,300,000 men, women, and children. More than 90 percent of the Africans who arrived in Bahia came from either the Bight of Benin or Central Africa.

Somewhere in this image, HMS Challenger is at anchor in Bahia Bay. Natural History Museum.

Usually, Challenger’s steam-powered winch would hoist fuel sacks aboard. But in Bahia, cheap labour was readily available. Joe wrote in his letter home: ‘The greater part of these negroes are slaves, and are let out for hire by their masters for about 6d per day. We had about 60 of them getting in our coal while the ship’s company went on leave, and they got in 200 tons in one day.’

The Slave’s Lament

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia O.
Torn from that lovely shore, I must never see it more,
And alas! I am weary, weary O.
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

All on that charming coast there’s no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O.
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O.
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

The burden I must bear while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O.
And I think on friends most dear with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O,
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

To download the sheet music click here.