This month’s post constitutes a part of a conference paper to be delivered in New Orleans for the PCA-South (Popular Culture Association South-Regional) conference. The title of the presentation is “ ‘With a prick from here to Tennessee’”: Fetishizing Male Genitals in Sea Chanteys.” The intention is that the paper will evolve into a larger journal submission in the near future. For now, I would like to take some time to lay out the key arguments of the piece and perhaps garner some feedback concerning the direction. In the time that I have spent researching and analyzing unexpurgated sea chantey material, it became clear to me that a vast number of the songs, though heteronormative in their subject matter, often produced a homoerotic, scopofilic gaze through which male genitals were consumed by the sailing men who sang the songs. I contend that, as with other all-male spaces like the fraternity house, hyper-masculine, heteronormative-identifying men will manufacture opportunities to engage in the homoerotic, even if it is only at a distance. Though many sea chantey narratives are heterosexual in their content and focus, the intense and repeated focus on and description of the male genitals, especially as they are engaged in the act of sex, demonstrates that there is at least a scopofilic desire to collectively watch and consume male genitalia, something that would seem outside of heterosexual constructs. Through violent sexual images, sensational descriptions of male genitals, and the narrative positioning of the male penis as the controlling and agentive character of the song, sea chantey narratives often provide a space where singers have the opportunity to experiment with the homoerotic or at least consume the erotically-charged male body. This presentation will not, in any way, attempt to argue that the evidence presented demonstrates a particular sexual identity of early modern male sailors. Instead, the paper seeks to add to conversation concerning the fluidity of sexual desire and eroticism, demonstrating that there are possibly spaces in which binary categories of sexuality cease to capture the entire narrative. I will begin with pointing to a violent quality inherent in some of the sexual narratives of chanteys, highlighting the fact that such violence lends itself to the heteronormative masculine construction of sailing identity which helps to mask the underlying homoerotic quality of the songs as they are collective sung and scopofilically consumed by the wider sailing audience. I will then move to the key pieces of sea chanteys which I view as presenting homoerotic dimensions. Pointedly, the narrative facets of sea chanteys that charge the songs with the possibility of the homoerotic are the multiple times which sailor narrators describe those genitals in hyperbolic ways and also the specific focus on the male genitals as they are engaged in the erotic encounter.
To begin, in a number of erotically-themed sea chanteys, the focus is on the sexual encounter between a sailor and some erotic object. An undercurrent of these sexual narratives, however, is a level of violence that I contend helps to mask or at least deflect, through performing hyper-masculine erotic expectations of violence and dominance, from the homoerotic, scopofilic gaze inherent in the presentation of the narrative. What I mean by this is that the violent sexual encounters, within the songs, work to underscore a hyper-virile, hyper-masculine aggressive sexuality that fits with the heteronormative construction of masculinity which produces, at face-value, an unquestionable heteronormative narrative. In terms of hyper-masculine presentations of sex, sociologists Sarah Jane Brubaker and Jennifer Johnson argue that “the penis is a weapon, the woman an object of the man’s power and aggression, and ultimately, his performance of masculinity.” 1 For Brubaker and Johnson, the performance of masculinity is sometimes presented through a violent and aggressive sexual display, crystallized in the performance of the penis, which ultimately weaponizes the organ in the pursuit of dominating a sexual object. An example of this hyper-masculine display is reproduced in an example from Robert Winslow Gordon’s “Inferno Collection.” In an example of titled “Handy, Me Boys, Handy,” called a “ ‘To’ gallan’s’l halyards chanty’” by the informant A.M. Turner, the reader watches as a sailor sexually engages with a “rosy cheeked damsel.” Within the narrative, the sailor copulates with the maid with such force and rigor that the woman eventually “dies.” The chantey example closes with “Then she led me to her snowhite bed/And I hugged her there till she was dead.” Though the line seems innocuous and not a stark representation of sex, the language of the line at least suggests the sexual encounter which would titillate the singing audience as they were engaged in repeating the narrative; however, and more pointedly, the line brings focused attention on what the sailor, himself, does to the maid which is something so aggressive that she “dies” in the process. The line weds both the woman’s supposed virginity, as the “snowhite bed” denotes, as well as her sexual prowess, as evinced by her leading the sailor to her bed. The image plays on the saint/whore dichotomy, titillating in and of itself; however, it also permits the singing audience to imagine the sexual prowess of male character involved in that his penis must be of such power, length, and girth that it actually impales his sexual object. Death, here, connects both the possibility of the woman’s actual and violent sexual death (from the vigor of the sailor) or the “little death” of the woman’s orgasm, facilitated by the sexual prowess of the sailor. Either way, the sailor rises (literally and metaphorically) as the violent dominator and facilitator of the sexual act and the audience is able to enjoy both the favors of the woman (by proxy) and also imagine the sexual abilities of the sailor (conjured through visualizing the size and power of the sailor’s penis which would facilitate both orgasm and possible death). In not naming the penis explicitly, in fact, the sailors draw even further attention to the genitals in that they imaginatively fill-in the blank space between the sailor and the maid going to bed and her ultimate death. Because the narratives were hyper-focused on the aggressive deployment of male genitals, there is space to imagine that the showcasing of the male member, as an agentive and aggressive main character bent on solidifying a dominant position, is a means through which sailing men celebrated an expected form of masculinity while also collectively consuming the homoerotic image in the safe space of fellow seamen. The celebration of the victorious sailing man, in the maid’s bed, is a salute to the prowess of this character as well as a fetishizing of the man, though this scopofilic gaze is protected through the presentation of the hyper-virile masculine sailor as a figure to laud.
What the example from “Handy, Me Boys, Handy” reveals about the narratives of sea chanteys is that they ultimately reproduce both an opportunity to celebrate the masculine expectations of a sailing men in bed, but also permit opportunity for the collective homoerotic consumption of the sexual prowess of a fellow man. Clearly, many of the narratives place the sailor’s penis at the center of the narrative and I argue that this focus not only celebrates the fierce sexuality of the sailing man but also permits space to fetishize the sexual act and the male body engaged in the sexual act. Indeed, the penis often becomes a character that supersedes the sailor himself, opening space for the argument that chanteys provide accepted and protected opportunities to erotically enjoy the male body. Descriptions of the sailor’s penis in unexpurgated sea chanteys, like the primary focus of “Handy, Me Boys, Handy” discussed above, appear to betray a particular narrative relationship with male anatomy that is dual parts awe/admiration while also treading the line of homoerotic consumption. Male genitals are often described in grandiose and hyperbolic terms, taking depictions of the penis into the realm of the fantastic, mythical, and powerful and oftentimes aligning the male member with facets of the ship itself. In a version of “The Hog-Eye Man,” reproduced in Vance Randolph’s Roll Me in Your Arms: “Unprintable” Ozarks Folksong and Folklore, Vol. I, the first two lines of the song read “Oh, the hog-eye man is the man for me,/With a prick from here to Tennessee.!” 2 In the description of the hog-eye man (possibly not a sailor but an African American man) the penis is actually so incredible that it almost takes the place of the man himself. The hyberbolic quality of the description places the penis on display for the consuming audience and allows for the opportunity to imagine a penis so large that it might, indeed, stretch from the man across state lines. The preoccupation with the length and girth of the penis harbors a reading of something akin to “penis-envy”; however, it also carries with it the possibility of eroticizing and fetishizing that piece of male anatomy. Another example of where the sailor’s genitals are the chief focus is in collected versions of “Every Ship.” In this chantey, the different parts of the body (and their possibly delights) are rhymed with aspects of the sailing ship. For instance, in Gordon’s Inferno Collection, the follow lines are provided by informant J. N. West:
Every ship has a capstan, has a capstan, has a capstan,
Every good ship has a capstan and a capstan has pawls
And every young girl likes a young man
With a big pair of balls.
In this example, the balls of the sailor are the prime focus of the beginning lines of the narrative. The naming of parts, in the song, is accomplished in such a way that the singing sailors are asked to complete the rhyming line together, generating a titillating effect where the singers would anticipate the rhyming word to be sung. The example provided in Gordon’s collection highlights several interesting aspects of songs where sailing genitals take center stage and ultimately represents the same fetishizing that I see in Randolph’s version of “The Hog-Eye Man.” What is different in this example from The Inferno Collection, however, is the fact that the character’s genitals are aligned with or metaphorically represented by parts of the sailing ship, thereby wedding the body of the sailor to the ship and also aggrandizing the genitals through this association. Aligning the sailing body, specifically his genitals, with the ship both raises the genitals to massive proportions (being similar in size and scope to a ship) and also aligns the sailor’s allegiance and ultimate pleasure to the sailing ship. The chantey narrative thus succeeds in reinforcing a grandiose ideal of male reproductive organs while also achieving the task of tying the sailor more deeply to his workspace. More importantly, though, songs such as this clearly provide the opportunity to scopofilically consume the eroticized and sexually charged image of genitals and imagine their incredible durability, length, and stamina. The men are ultimately able to consume these images within the relatively safe space of collective singing, thereby protecting them in the same way that has been observed in erotic initiation rites in the college fraternity. Jane Ward, in her book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, identifies specific (contemporary) all-male environments where men who identify as heterosexual are able to erotically explore male-male sexual encounters within a protected and, sometimes, sacred homosocial sphere where the ultimate desire is to be a part of the group. She argues that “homosocial homosexuality is increasingly offered as a possibility for adult men who may have, in psychotherapist Joe Kort’s words, a ‘deep longing to experience the physical intimacy with other men that they are denied in a sexist and homophobic world.’” 3 The sexual narratives of sea chanteys are a collective event, between men, where the humor and collective sharing of the imagery are rendered “only joking”; therefore disguising the possible pleasurable outlet viewing the genitals up close might provide.
The sailing penis (or the sailor’s sexual desires) are not only the key focus of the narrative of many sea chanteys but are also often the controlling agents of the narrative, rendering the eroticized sailing character the possible dual object of lust and desire and also the hero to emulate. To clarify, the sailing character is both someone to be and someone to be with. The penis of the sailor, as discussed above, is often represented as parts of the ship and, especially in terms of examples of sea chanteys located in the James Madison Carpenter Collection, are the way through which the sailor enjoys the fruits of his conquest, solidify his position as the one in control, and the images ultimately work to both represent the expectations of masculine performance while also providing space for titillating and rousing fellow singers. An example of the sailor’s penis and, thereby, his desire, as controlling agents in the narrative, is contained in several versions of “Blow the Man Down” located in The James Madison Carpenter Collection, currently housed in the Library of Congress and now digitally uploaded to The Vaugh Williams Library online. In an example from informant L. Vernon Briggs (1880) the sailor engages with two separate women in port and describes his control and ordering of the sexual situation in both encounters. For the first, the sailor describes how “With contentment and pleasure the time passed away,/And I never did leave her until the next day” which reveals that the sailor and the women he encountered in port had sex long into the night. The image is rather quaint and only hints at the sexual prowess of the sailor engaged with the maid. The fact that he “did not leave her until the next day,” when coupled with the idea of “contentment and pleasure” seems to imply that the sailor was able to indulge his lascivious desires well into the evening (if not into the morning) which would be a testament to his erotic stamina and capabilities. The inference here is rather veiled and vague, but it does connect to what was discussed above in terms of violence and masculine expectations in the sexual encounter. In terms of the example from “Blow the Man Down,” it is not until the second encounter that the reader is met with a starker representation of both the sailor’s voracious sexual desire and the primacy of his penis which suggests an inherent desire to consume the male body within the sexual encounter. The line reads “Chock up to the sheave hole this yard must go” which contains a metaphor of the penis as part of ship while the genitals of the woman are aligned with the “sheave hole” or a place through which ropes are inserted to fasten the sails. In this phrase, the penis is aligned with the yard of the ship or the place where masts are affixed. The line implies that the sailor wishes to bury his “yard” into the “sheave hole” of this woman and the reader is left to imagine that the sailor ultimately succeeds in the penetration of the love object. The fact that the sailor imagines that he would bury his penis “chock up to the sheave hole” forces the reading that the sailor’s gigantic and agentive penis fills the woman to capacity and there is a hint of violence inherent in his forcible entry. As well, from the pointed description, it would not be impossible to imagine that sailors involved in singing this song might imagine what it would feel like to be in the sailor’s place or, possibly, in the place of the woman. For a view concerning men in the early modern era and their attachment to erotic stories as a means to provide a safe space for consuming sexual material, Laura Gowing, in her Common Bodies, argues that
“Sex stories were told and retold. They gave modest observers a way to put themselves into a sexual discourse that risked being compromising, and they enabled people to reflect on the rules of sexual behaviour. Perhaps they worked rather like murder stories, where the titillating stories of horrible, subversive crimes licensed the exploration of transgression and disorder, before the criminal’s hasty confession provided a suitable moral closure. In the same way, talking explicitly about their neighbours’ sexual transgressions enabled both women and men with a claim to modesty to act and speak as voyeurs.” 4
Similarly to Gowing, I contend that sailors utilized spaces like their sea chanteys to produce narratives that allowed them to consume the eroticized bodies of fellow sailors, under the cover of heteronormative sexual interaction. The body of the woman involved in the encounter is often held at a narrative distance to the sailor and does not receive the same primacy of focus. Her genitals are largely left out of the narrative and at least in the examples surveyed throughout this post, their sexual agency is eclipsed by the prowess of the sailor character.
With the analysis above in mind, it is clear that sailors must have also enjoyed rehashing and collectively viewing the erotic narrative contained within the chantey or else different narratives, with similar tenors and foci, would not appear in the number they do in spaces like Gordon’s Inferno Collection or The James Madison Carpenter Collection. Primarily, the argument can be made that the continued presentation of genitals and sexual gratification (controlled by the male subjects of course) represent a fascination with or fixation on the masculine subject as he is engaged in sexual gratification. This reading is garnered from a surface-level survey of the objects and characters that receive the most narrative attention within some of the unexpurgated sea chanteys texts discussed here. A deeper implication, however, is the possibility that the continued appearance of the male genitals, their primacy and grand depictions, assuage a collective desire to scopofilically view the erotic material that was produced and because the sea chantey material was used in the collective process of ship work, the argument could be ventured that the erotic chanteys are accomplishing something even deeper and more important. What the narratives could dually represent is a maritime space where men experimented with the continuum of desire, viewing the bodies both male and female on display, while also bonding the men together within the process of consuming taboo narrative. It is impossible to know the motivations for the unexpurgated chantey content unequivocally, as the men who produced them are now long-dead; however, it is worth imagining the narratives and what they articulate against the backdrop of the largely homosocial world of the sailing ship on which and within which they were produced. In fact, to close, the chanteys may function in a similar way to what Eve Sedgewick contends in her Between Men. The female body ultimately becomes a conduit through which two men are able to come together and the liminal space that the woman holds is the site at which the two men are erotically connected. For me, there is something much more intricate at play in the male sharing of erotic narratives than simply that boys like to look at naughty pictures.
- Sarah Jane Brubaker and Jennifer A. Johnson 2008,”‘Pack a more powerful punch’ and ‘lay the pipe’: erectile enhancement discourse as a body project for masculinity,” Journal Of Gender Studies 17, no. 2: 142.
- Vance Randolph, Roll Me in Your Arms: “Unprintable” Ozarks Folksong and Folklore, Vol. I, ed. Gershon Legman, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992) 403. Randolph attributes the version to Stan Hugill, citing that it is a part of “Hugill’s ‘Unprintable’ manuscript supplement of unexpurgated versions of sea-chanteys he was not permitted to print in all his other book” (402).
- Jane Ward, Not Gay, 107.
- Laura Gowing, Common Bodies : Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven : Yale University Press, 2003) 106.