‘Impossible ships in impracticable positions’ : Sea songs at the UL

One afternoon in late December, the conversation at MusiCB3 turned to ships and sea songs. It was Margaret’s Christmas post (which looked at some of the nautical aspects of Christmas stories, such as Sinterklaas arriving in the Netherlands by boat) that prompted this, but it set us off thinking about sea songs in general. Numerous nautical but non-Christmassy items began to catch my attention then, so for this post I thought I’d revisit them…

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Looking up sea songs with a Christmas connection led me to The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (via The Sailor’s Christmas Day on page 259). This collection was selected and edited by the folklorist Roy Palmer, who writes about some of the early collectors of sea songs in his introduction.

According to Palmer, the first collection which included music as well as words was Laura Alexandrine Smith’s The Music of the Waters, published in 1888, which is also held in the UL. This was a collection of ‘Chanties, or Working Songs of the Sea’, as opposed to songs written and sung by landsmen about the sea. In her introduction, Smith describes these ‘landsmen’s’ pieces rather dismissively as unrealistic tales of “impossible ships in impracticable positions” which may be heard “in comfortable drawing-rooms to the tinkling of pianos by romantic young ladies, or in still waters in sight of green fields by landsmen yachting”. Not a green field or a piano to be seen in the shanties, however – Smith describes the songs in her collection as an essential part of life on board ship, work songs which were sung to the accompaniment of “the booming double bass of the hollow topsails, and the multitudinous chorus of the ocean.”

Foraging among the Victorian sheet music collection at the UL, most of the nautical songs I found fall into the ‘comfortable drawing-room’ category; Smith’s romantic young lady might well have been familiar with The Moon on the Dancing Waves (A1871.6483), and even when all seems lost in the ‘descriptive ballad’ Wreck’d and Saved (A1871.4482) a rescuing sail is spotted on the horizon.


Moving away from the drawing-room and back to shanties, another collection held in both the UL and the Pendlebury is Shanties from the Seven Seas, a collection of work songs “from the great days of sail” by Stan Hugill. Like Smith, Hugill makes a clear distinction between shanties, the songs sung at sea as work songs, and songs simply about the sea.  He goes on to describe the different kinds of work the shanties would accompany – the ‘hauling’ songs and the ‘heaving’ songs, the ‘short haul’ and ‘long haul’, and the role of the shantyman.

One shanty collection mentioned by both Hugill and Palmer is the collection Ships, Sea Songs, and Shanties, by W. B. Whall, which is happily digitised over at the Internet Archive! Here you can also find Cecil Sharp’s English Folk-Chanteys.

One last song from the Victorian sheet music boxes to end with – a drawing room song masquerading as a working song, with a title page illustration by Jules Chéret, and with plenty of “yo-ho”s thrown in for good measure…

Capstan song

Capstan Song (A1871.1355)


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1 Response to ‘Impossible ships in impracticable positions’ : Sea songs at the UL

  1. Pingback: 2018: That was the year that was… | MusiCB3 Blog

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