Heave Away, Haul Away

August 18, 2021 / Art and Music, Good to Know, History/Maritime, Things to Do & See

Written by Daisy Nell

Suddenly enjoying renewing enthusiasm around the world, sea shanties were sung aboard tall ships in the age of sail to coordinate the tedious tasks and alleviate the long hours of boredom. Many of these mainly manly song fragments have been collected and preserved from the journals of 19th-century whaling and merchant ships, and presented regularly at maritime museums, libraries, and Tall Ships events.

Courtesy of Maritime Gloucester

Sea shanties, often spelled as “chanteys”, from the French verb chanter, meaning “to sing”, have “gone viral” in the age of COVID, perhaps for a similar cure for the feelings of isolation, and a longing for the return to normal life. In the old days the songs, ditties, and chants were used to coordinate the labor in hauling up the sails and anchor, as it was well known that “many hands make light work.” The call and response format of the work songs, thought to be derived in part from the work songs and so-called “field hollers” of African slaves, were accompanied by the pulling, hauling, and stomping used to get the backbreaking work done. (Since the number of sails required far fewer hands, sea shanties were not used on the Gloucester fishing schooners.)

Today, thanks to the internet, this old hairy-chested and anachronistic repertoire has cropped up everywhere, though their popularity has long been favored folkie fare in Gloucester. Never mind the “floating locker room” content—it’s all fair game! Yet, since the 1970’s, starting with a trio called The Starboard List, led by Peter Marston, shanty singing has been a part of the folk music fabric of Cape Ann. Throughout the 1980’s the Gloucester Folklife Festival always featured a “shanty blast”. People who were smitten with the genre back then have maintained the medium at parties and pubs ever since.

Local “Shanty” sings led by Gloucester’s Peter Souza.

Every Monday night for over 15 years, Peter Souza has hosted a session of shanty singing. You can hear them upstairs at Gloucester’s Rhumb Line Restaurant on Railroad Avenue when the pandemic coast is clear. (For now, it’s a weekly Zoom event.) Folks near and far gather to harmonize and socialize on a virtual voyage from their everyday lives in the 21st Century back to the days of ships under sail, without lifting anything heavier than a saltine. The dangers of seafaring, especially in a place with Gloucester’s history of heroic sacrifice, are celebrated and cherished as “the crew” join in a joyous chorus that soars through the centuries.

So, put yer backs into it and sing along: “I thought I heard the old man say, Heave away, Haul Away—It’s one more pull and then belay—We’re bound for South Australia!”

Daisy Nell is the Chair of the annual Gloucester Schooner Festival, now in its 37th year. She is a musician and children’s book author, and the owner of a salty schooner called Redbird.

Top Photo: Daisy Nell and crew aboard the Schooner Ardelle for a music sail.