From Dirty Linen #120 (Oct/Nov 2005)
The Ship’s Company Chanteymen
Singing the Life of
the High Seas
by Pamela Murray Winters
If Maryland — the small state that’s supposedly called “America in Miniature,” though this Maryland native has never heard anyone call it that — is known for anything, it’s maritime culture. The home of crabcakes and Old Bay Seasoning is also the home of the U.S. Naval Academy. It’s also home to many students and preservers of traditional culture, among them the Ship’s Company Chanteymen.
“Back in the Dark Ages — actually, the early 1980s — Ship’s Company, the greater group of which we’re a part, was a living-history group on the USS Constellation in Baltimore,” said Myron Peterson, the Chanteymen’s business manager. The Constellation, built in 1853 and named for a 1797 frigate that was being dismantled in the same Norfolk, Virginia, facility, helped the African Squadron in the Mediterranean sea intercept slave ships bound for the Americas. Her crew was responsible for the first Union capture of a Confederate ship in 1861. Later, the great three-mast, 22-gun sailing ship helped protect Union ships from Confederate raiders. After she was decommissioned in 1955, she fell into disrepair. Initial efforts to restore her in accordance with 1797 standards failed, but from 1996 to 1999 she underwent a restoration to her 1861 condition and is now open for tours in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
“She’s interpreted as a Civil War-era ship,” said Peterson, and this fact places her in the thick of chantey development. The songs flourished, wrote Howard Hornstein, from 1820 to 1920 and “mainly in America… Chanteys were used by sailors to lighten certain backbreaking tasks and to enliven their leisure hours. The words and music have been described as simple and direct, wild and spirited, salty and rough as a North Atlantic gale. In fact, they were a reflection of the sailors themselves.”
“A massive physical effort has to be coordinated,” said Peterson of work aboard a ship. “Everybody has to do it together.” The tools of rhythm, melody, information, and emotion were thus combined to get everyone on the same page, as it were, via this oral art form.
Peterson knows whereof he speaks, although he said, “I’m the odd one to talk to, because I don’t follow folk music!” He explained, “I served 21 years in the United States Navy… Even if most [modern] sailors don’t appreciate sea chanteys, they say, ‘That’s old Navy stuff.’
“I’ve been involved in living history for more than 30 years,” said the Illinois native. While working with the Constellation project, he and some others began singing to pass the time. The Ship’s Company Chanteymen formed in 1996, getting members by word of mouth: “It was kind of like a friend, and a friend of a friend, and next thing you know it was a number of people.”
Peterson and company are dedicated to preserving the chantey tradition by performance — and also by participatory gatherings. They hold sings at Maryland bars — the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton, the Drummer’s Lot in Annapolis, and the Wharf Rat in Baltimore —three or four times a month.
“Not all of the members go to every chantey sing,” Peterson explained. “There are eight of us. When we do performances we draw from that pool of eight. That means we don’t always have the same mix of voices.”
At the Royal Mile, the Drummer’s Lot, and the Rat, all are welcome to join in. Then again, the chantey tradition isn’t so inclusive. While the Chanteymen have female members — Darcy Nair sang the “Mingelay Boat Song” when the group lent members to a 2004 performance of the Victorian melodrama “Black Eyed Susan” by the D.C. area’s New Old Theater Company — Peterson says, “There is very limited documentation about women going to sea as sailors. As chanteymen, no. That’s why the two ladies that we have don’t generally sing chanteys. It just doesn’t sound right — that’s by their own admission.”
What is the right sound for a chantey? Peterson cites Stan Hugill’s belief that “volume and clarity are more important than tonal beauty.” Hugill (1906-1992) was to chanteys what Alan Lomax was to Appalachian ballads and Cecil Sharp was to morris dance — and more, for Hugill actually was a seaman and thus a participant as well as an observer. His 1961 collection Shanties from the Seven Seas is a valued source for songs.
Of course, he cleaned them up a bit, as does Peterson’s group. The repertoire of the Ship’s Company crew is generally family-friendly, but he understands the motivations of the original singers: “You have a group of men who’ve been together a long time. You have a limited number of topics. It can end up like a locker room!” He said that a friend at NASA has told him that discussions among astronauts on a mission, who are recorded all the time, sometimes get so rough that astronauts have commented that they should buy flowers for all the poor women doing the transcribing.
Asked why anyone should care about a bunch of old work songs, some inelegant, some with arcane terminology, Peterson mused, “Why should they care about old hymns? Why should they care about mining songs? Why do people still get together and sing songs about the IRA?
“It’s an aural tradition,” he said, stressing the spelling of “aural.” And it hasn’t lost its relevance. “Many of us do sail. And knowing there’s a song for a specific job,” he says, they can sing as they do the task. By singing, people “get an understanding of life in a different era. It’s what we call ‘aha!’ moments.”
It’s also fun — and it must have been so in the days when the Constellation still sailed. Peterson noted that many sailors were illiterate, and that even the ones who could read had “a limited supply of reading material or opportunity. You may have books, but in a dark area, they couldn’t see what they were doing. A good chanteyman could also entertain as he sang.”
And, as Hornstein wrote, “If I were to venture a guess, I would suggest that the practice of voicing rhythmic sounds while working may be as old as mankind and probably is intrinsic to human nature.”
[For more information, or to order the Ship Company Chanteymen’s CD, Donkey Riding, visit the website at