Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Sunday

January 26, 2014

Maritime alliance reprises sea shanties

“Way, haul away, we’ll haul away Joe”

TRAVERSE CITY – One way to help keep maritime history alive is knowing -- and singing – the sea shanties sailors sang as they hauled in anchors, lifted and dropped sails, folklorist Tom Kastle says.

Kastle, a musician, singer and tall ship captain from Madison, Wis., led a two-hour workshop on sea shanties Saturday at the Maritime Heritage Alliance boat building shop in Greilickville.

Shanties, also spelled “chanteys,” are work songs once sung by sailors doing various kinds of heavy manual work on board mostly merchant square riggers, even brigs and topsail schooners. The right song at the right time helped helped them accomplish together what they otherwise could not have done on their own.

Many were “call-and-response” songs. The lead singer, or shantyman, made the call and workers sang the chorus. For example:

“The songs were basic work tools,” said Kastle, who has served as captain aboard several Great Lakes tall ships, including Friends Good Will in South Haven, Inland Seas in Suttons Bay, Windy and Windy II in Chicago. He is a relief captain for the Denis Sullivan in Milwaukee.

Shanties came into common use on American vessels before the Civil War in the 1800s. The songs have roots in British sailor working chants. African-American songs sung by workers loading cotton on vessels in southern U.S. port cities also influenced their development.

As many as 1,600 to 1,800 schooners sailed on the Great Lakes at their peak in the 1870s..

The mostly owner-operated schooners were the semi tractor-trailer truck of their days, while corporations owned the larger steamships, Kastle said.

Shanty songs ended their long hold over mariners near the end of the 19th century as steam-powered ships and shipboard machinery took the place of the sailing vessels near the end of the 19th century.

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