Whenever I present a part of my project, I always have a sneaking suspicion that my research draws interest and crowds solely because people often align sea chanteys (or sea songs) with pirates (or dirty drinking ditties). This suspicion is often confirmed when my project comes up in conversation, either general or scholarly, because I am inevitably asked how my project on pirates is going or how much fun my research must be considering that I get to talk about pirates. I cannot lay fault or blame at the feet of the people attending my presentations or with those who are asking me questions about my topic of choice (I will expound further on that in later parts of this discussion), but I have found that, as my research has progressed, I have begun to bristle a bit when I am confronted by the alignment of sea chanteys with pirates. I would like to begin by outlining how and why sea chanteys are often aligned with pirates, though not really connected (nor should they ever be) and will finish up by discussing why sea chanteys were primarily the purview of hard-working tars who were attempting to navigate the difficult economic, social, and hierarchical world of their specific maritime environment. It is my intention that this post will eventually become a much larger, published analysis and argument. I am interested in feedback concerning these preliminary thoughts.
Sea chanteys ultimately get connected with pirates because the social consciousness has been groomed to make this connection and the connection’s foundation is moored to not only an overarching human fascination with the sea and the figures who are a part of that landscape but also with a desire to romanticize that landscape for purely consumptive pleasure. Looking at almost any culture, during periods where the sea was an incredibly important piece to the survival and evolution of a people, one can see how different aspects of the sea and sea life made an indelible mark on the cultural consciousness through representations found in plays, novels, short stories, poetry, art, song, satire, and so many other outlets consumed by the general population. These images left such a mark on the cultural consciousness, regardless of the time and place, that they have persisted even into our own consciousness today; however, the early modern social construction of the sailor (found in pieces created for cultural consumption) ultimately paved the way for the sailor identity to be conflated with the pirate identity. For the consuming public during the Great Age of Sail, they had representations of the sailor and sea life found in pieces like John Cleland’s Fanny Hill or the character of Billy Budd in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. These early representations, I venture, ultimately created space for an inappropriate continuum between the Jack Tar of the Atlantic merchant sailing world and the current, fictitious representations of pirates located in such places as the wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or the Black Sails series (though, this series is much closer in its representation of the maritime world, so I’m told).
I am laying the groundwork, here, that scholars and researchers can trace a line between the sailor character found in early modern depictions of the sailor to the pirate character we see in the contemporary film and televisions series’ based on looking at how early modern sailors were discussed and described within the height of the Great Age of Sail (roughly 1500-1860). The overly caricaturized Jack Tar slowly evolved into the swashbuckling, song-belting outlaw of the sea though the two historical figures were incredibly different and both lead lives that were not only dangerous and deadly, but were totally different from how they were rendered within the popular consciousness. In most popular descriptions of sailors during the Great Age of Sail, they are often described as drunk, careless, rough, inarticulate brutes whose sole purpose was to booze, womanize, and seek pleasure. Historians Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh show that New England minister Cotton Mather characterized the sailors, in his 1709 Sailour’s Companion and Counsellor, as men “much more interested in drinking, ‘Wicked Speeches,’ ‘Filthy Songs,’ gaming, superstition, sodomy, and masturbation.”i Descriptions like this show that sailors were seen, within their contemporary social world, as “a different sort of people: ‘a strange race of men.’ In character, ‘simple and somewhat rude,’ ‘fearless, intrepid, and daring,’ ‘thoughtless, hasty, and choleric,’ ‘heedless and improvident,’ they were said to possess a degree of ‘hardihood, sometimes approaching almost from necessity to ferocity.’”ii Such characterizations show that sailors were often viewed by outsiders and non-sailors, especially those who were religious, as careless rabble-rousers who were prone to flights of daring and violence and were so hardened as to become almost inhuman. It is not difficult, then, to make the connection between a character sketch such as that found in early modern examples and the fantastic character of the currently beloved Jack Sparrow found in the Pirates franchise. Indeed, I would contend that Jack Sparrow is an amalgamation of early modern contemporary depictions of both sailors and their outlaw counterparts (the real pirates, who were feared and reviled) and that he represents a moment in our contemporary culture where we have abandoned historical truth for own pleasure. This idea of a continuum between early modern sailors and contemporary representations of the sexy pirate is important in understanding the ultimate conflation of sea chanteys with drunk pirates singing in a tavern or on their fictitious ships. Whenever I mention my project or people ask about the work that I do, sea chantey is associated with something like the pirate song “Yo Ho! (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” which was written and designed to accompany the Pirates of the Caribbean Disney franchise. Most people are familiar with the song and of course, when the song comes to mind or is acted out, the singer is seen or imagined as drunkenly rolling about and spouting the tune of the song, much like the scene from Jaws as the crew drunkenly sings “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” Unfortunately, songs like this and sketches such as that of Jack Sparrow have further woven the sailor and the pirate together and the real, lived experience of the early modern sailor and his beloved (and incredibly important) work song of the sea have each been lost within the various social iterations of his character over the centuries.
In my work with sea chanteys, it has become quite clear that the sailor’s work song does much more than the fictitious “yo ho, let’s drink and be rowdy” found in popular characterizations like that located within the Pirates of the Caribbean films and that continued conflation of the pirate song (if those are even said to have existed) with the sailor’s sea chantey, does a disservice to both parts of the maritime world (both the sailor and the pirate). These are two different aspects of the very complex sailing world during the Great Age of Sail and historians, as well as popular culture, will only be able to truly understand them when they are extricated from each other. The sailor was not a pirate just as the pirate was not a “sailor” (in the strictest sense of the term). While pirates were originally sailors (they were often sailors from merchant and naval vessels who had mutinied and turned pirate), sailors were not, in turn, pirates.iii Many sailors lived out very successful careers (which was difficult in and of itself) having never mutinied and turned pirate. At best, songs like “Yo Ho! (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” wholly conceived for the Pirates franchise and not at all a historical sailing tune, should be considered forecastle songs or drinking songs, popular in taverns or at port and therefore inaccurately represent the landscape of the sailing world. Sea chanteys were not only completely different from forecastle songs or drinking songs (in movement, rhythm, and narrative), there was also a strict taboo against singing sea chanteys on land and the sailors only associated the singing of the chantey with the pull of a rope or the driving of the capstan of the ship. In fact, the sea chantey is so inextricably linked to the work of the sailing ship and so uniquely a part of the sailing man’s identity that in a story relayed by musicologist and sea chantey collector Richard Runciman Terry, told to him originally by the sailor Sir Walter Runciman, the reader can see the juxtaposition between the sailing man’s relationship with the chantey and the land bound researcher’s inexperience with the brotherhood of the sea. While listening to the story of how sailors regaled an audience with the sea chanteys “Boney was a warrior” and “Haul the Bowlin,’” while hauling up the topsail, Terry articulated how “In my then ignorance I naturally asked: ‘Why couldn’t you have sung shanties without hoisting the topsail? and the reply was: ‘How could we sing a shanty without having our hands on the rope?’”iv The drunk pirate, belting the lines to a “chantey” in a tavern, with his arm wrapped around the waist of a prostitute, is so far removed from the actual, lived experience of the sailing man and his chantey that aligning this fictitious character with the skillful sailor and his song is an insult to these sailing men and who they actually were. I suggest that sea chanteys were far more important to the sailor and his world than contemporary depictions detail and, in fact, I venture the argument that pirates may not have needed chanteys in the same way that sailors did. To the men who sang sea chanteys as a part of their work, the chanteys were his means of bonding, a way to mitigate the difficult work of the ship, a space to air grievances, a place to explore intimacy, longing, and desire, and were also a place where he could take back power through lampooning those who had power over him. Pirates, on the other hand, produced a culture on ship which required an egalitarianism, a “consciousness of kind,” and a relationship with other pirate ships where they “consistently refused to attack one another” and did not need sea chanteys to accomplish this.v Pirates developed a different sort of relationship in their wooden world, sometimes created through their own system of rules and doling of punishments, that helped them accomplish their shared goals of revenge against captains who had wronged them, pursuit of plunder and wealth, and facilitating a shipboard environment where things were shared equally among them. It is possible that pirates sang chanteys, there is little evidence to prove otherwise and pirates were certainly (at one time or another) seamen for legitimate ships; however, the fact remains that the chantey, the work song of the sailing man, is a song deployed within the working world of sailing ship and not the careless, dark taverns located in fantasy world of the collective contemporary consciousness.
I only hope, in subsequent publications and posts, to continue to extricate the legitimate chantey from the drunken pirate song and to bring more legitimacy back to the chantey itself, the real one, not the one that we have been spoon-fed for centuries.
i# Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh, Young Men and the Sea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 92. It is important to highlight the fact that Cotton Mather was a minister. During the Great Age of Sail, the religion and eternal soul of the sailor was the object of much scrutiny and continued attempted intervention. Historian Paul Gilje outlines in his To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850, (Cambridge University Press, 2016), that “Throughout the antebellum era the American Bible Society printed Bibles that would be purchased by auxiliary organizations and then sold or distributed to different groups, including seamen. For example, the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society distributed 750 Bibles in 1846, 382 Bibles in 1848, and 249 Bibles in 1849. These handouts were just a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of Bibles placed into the hands of sinners in the backwoods, in the cities, and aboard ships by the American Bible Society before 1850” (217). Many religious organizations provided the libraries given to sailing ships and sailing men were left to entertain themselves only with those books that were freely given by societies such as the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society. The hope was that the sailing men would be reformed by the religious literature they encountered.
ii# Ibid., 233.
iii# Marcus Rediker, in his Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), details how “Almost all pirates labored as merchant seamen, Royal Navy sailors, or privateersmen” (65).
iv# Richard Runicman Terry, The Way of the Ship: Sailors, Shanties, and Shantymen (Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008), 7. Richard Runciman Terry provides no date for when the story was told to him. Instead, he only shows that the “incident [was] related to me quite casually by Sir Walter Runicman” (The Way of the Ship: Sailors, Shanties and Shantymen, (Tucson: Fireship Press, 2008), 7).
v# Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic, 78.