• Jenny Ferris

What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?

A few of my classes are currently practising ti-tika and so I thought - what with the wave of popularity that Sea Shanties are currently enjoying on social media - what better song to tap into than Drunken Sailor?


To set the scene, here's a pretty iconic version from the Irish Rovers:


If, like me, you enjoy waxing lyrical about the historical context of songs while your students yawn, snore and roll their eyes (hopefully not!) you may wish to introduce the song by talking about the fact that sailing a ship in the pre-engine days involved lots of sailors performing lots of tasks with co-ordinated movements in order to keep the ship moving and that in order to keep in time, they'd sing sea shanties like this one.


There is a clapping game that accompanies this song and I especially love it because it really helps students who are still struggling with differentiating rhythms as each rhythm has its own action! They are set to match the text, as follows:


What = clap own hands

Shall we = patsch one leg then the other (eg. right hand taps right leg, then left hand taps left leg)

Do = clap own hands

With a = patsch one leg then the other

Drunk = clap own hands

-en = right hand high 5

Sail = clap own hands

-or = left hand high 5


This pattern is of course repeated a total of 3 times, in line with the song. The final line goes like this:

ear-lie = clap own hands, then right hand high 5

in the = clap own hands then left hand high 5

mor-ning = two "high tens" (both hands clap your partner's)


This clapping game is performed in a single circle with partners facing each other (ie. half the circle is facing clockwise, the other half facing anti-clockwise).





At the end of the song, each person walks past their partner to a new person. This will take some careful modelling and practice, especially if your class does not have much experience with different folk dance formations!


Rhythm Derivation


Once the dance is completed, I always find that I have much more success trying to derive the rhythm as a class, because the students have a physical action tied to each rhythm and are able to more clearly differentiate between different sounds.


Improvisation Challenge

This is an excellent opportunity for text-based improvisation. Due to the temperamental nature of maritime work, any task on board a ship could take a different length of time each voyage. As a result, these shanties needed to be adaptable to fit the length of the task. If it was taking longer than expected, a shantyman needed to improvise new verses to keep the song going and maintain tempo.


As a result, many of the subsequent verses include ideas on how to punish said drunken sailor eg. shave his belly with a rusty razor, put him in the longboat 'til he's sober, put him in the bilge and make him drink it etc.


Students can try to create other verses in a similar vein (depending on your limits for school appropriateness!). Discuss the repeated structure of the song, the number of beats in each phrase, where the emphasised syllables are in a given sentence etc. and see if they can set their improvised text to the music of the song.


What else would you do with this song? Drop us a line and let us know!

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