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  • Writer's pictureJenny Ferris

A sheaf of Sea Shanties

Tall ship

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Albany International Sea Shanty Festival over in Western Australia and was struck by just how much of a crossover there is between shanty music and the kinds of folk songs we often use in the Kodaly classroom!

Albany Shanty Festival Logo

So what is a sea shanty?

Sea shanties are rhythmic working songs that were used upon ships to help coordinate large groups of people. Say ten people all needed to tug on a rope at the same time in order to raise a sail, then what better way to help them keep time than music!

There were many different types of shanties, each associated with different jobs upon a ship (such as unfurling sails, raising anchors or pumping the ship dry at port) and they had the added bonus of keeping up the morale of the crew on long journeys (whaling vessels often spent several years at a time at sea!)

Shanties could also be used as historical narratives, telling stories of naval heroes or great journeys. These tended to be more balladic and featured longer choruses and more complex melodies than the shorter, more functional working shanties. One such example is the Mingulay Boat Song (performed below by yours truly).

Both styles, however, feature a call and response form where a "shanty man" leads the crew with differing lyrics (at times improvised) in each verse, echoed by a consistent refrain from the crew.

There is often also a chorus, where everyone joins in, such as in this recording of "Haul Away Joe" by the Jolly Rogers:

How can I use shanties in my classroom?

These songs are great for teaching & practising a call & response form. It provides your students with a rich foundation for improvising, as many of these songs follow a similar form in every verse (for example "Roll The Old Chariot" whose verses tend to consist of "......wouldn't do us any harm" eg. a nice warm bed, a hot pot of stew, a few days ashore etc.)

If you need to make links to other curriculum areas (eg. in an IB setting) then these are a great way to discuss things like maritime history, colonisation etc. through an engaging musical framework.

They're great for developing singing confidence and accuracy in vocal pitch-matching as the students get many attempts to get the refrains right due to the repetitive nature of the song.

There are also several that can be included in your rhythmic or melodic units (eg. Drunken Sailor is great for ti-tika!)

I'm sure I'd be preaching to the choir (pun intended) to tell you about the benefits of group singing, so why not expand your folk repertoire to include some sea shanties in your classroom too?

If you want to pick up a few more, you can check out this site or check out the Sunday Sea Songs YouTube channel.

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