Dispatches from the present
At this year’s Connecticut Sea Music Festival, after billed acts concluded around 10 p.m., two hundred people squeezed into the creaking hearth room of the Griswold Inn, a pub built in 1776. Trying not to upset my long-queued-for pint, I secured a sliver of floor on the periphery, brushing up against portraits of defunct local steam ferries, New England schooners and Continental Navy frigates. Then someone near the middle called out the first line of a sea shanty—“Haul on the bowlin’, the bully ship’s a-rollin’!”—and we all fell silent before belting out the chorus, marginally in tune but perfectly in unison.
When I arrived in Essex, Connecticut, the interstate spat me onto a main street lined with yellow, white and umber clapboard homes bearing pediments, fanlights and plaques with numbers like 1727 on them. Like the figureheads carved onto ships of the line of that era, these Georgian buildings encapsulate the Age of Sail’s sensibility of restrained elegance coupled with enterprise and adventure. A quintessential New England town, Essex is wealthier than New Haven and more cultured than Greenwich. It’s a place where Betsy Ross’s stars and stripes fly alongside Pride flags. First surveyed by English colonists in 1635, the town sits on the tidal Connecticut River estuary, roughly five miles north of Long Island Sound. You could call the Port of Essex “ancient,” the way we sometimes do three-hundred-year-old trees.
The festivalgoers, seemingly all of whom were at least twice my age, congregated early in the morning at the town hall for a sea music symposium that would last a full eight hours. They wore striped shirts and fiddler’s caps, and the auditorium was lined with portraits of American Revolutionary War campaigns. We heard a series of presentations by Shanty TikToK-studying Ph.D. candidates, maritime-history professors and sea-archive scrutinizers. The other attendees were not only shanty aficionados but sea-music historians themselves and wasted no time volleying complex questions at the presenters. While they were quick to point out that “The Wellerman,” the song that initiated the ShantyTok trend, is not, in fact, a shanty but a ballad, they concurred that, all things considered, its brief online popularity was a net positive for the shanty community: the more people able to sing sea music together the better, even digitally.
These lectures and workshops, and the debates that flared up in the breaks between them, provided me with what amounted to Shanties 101: Sea shanties are not merely songs sung by sailors on boats but rather specifically call-and-response songs orchestrated by “shantymen” to increase the efficiency of sailing, fishing and whaling crews. Shanties, or chanteys (likely from the French chanter, meaning “to sing”), lasted the duration of various seafaring tasks and so improvisation often usurped fixed lengths, static lyrics or counts of verses. We don’t know for sure when, where or by whom shanties were first developed. They proliferated during the rise of the transatlantic packet trade in the first half of the 1800s, which depended on lean, motivated commercial crews. Such songs would never have been sung for shore-dwelling audiences and weren’t documented until the late nineteenth century, when sailing and its need for optimized hauling and heaving gave way to steam.
The eloquence of many sea songs is that while they often describe trials, injustice, sorrow and longing, their tones and melodies are joyful, tenacious, even optimistic. Sailors seem to have been both beckoned by high-seas life and traumatized by it. Their songs accordingly crystallize this fusion of world-weariness and wanderlust. “Oh, the times were hard and the wages low / Leave her, Johnny, leave her / I guess it’s time for us to go / And it’s time for us to leave her!” begins the traditional anchor-raising shanty “Leave Her Johnny” in a lilting tune.
The symposium closed with a documentary that follows the Torontonian shanty band Pressgang Mutiny (one of whom, it transpired, had been my brigantine captain on a weeklong Lake Ontario sailing trip twenty years ago) to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There they visit a group of men known as the Barrouallie Whalers, retired subsistence pilot-whale hunters with a rich shanty repertoire. The Vincentians know many of the same songs as the Canadians—“John Dead,” “Sam’s Gone Away,” “Sally Brown”—which they sing together, comparing variations and musing about their origins and how precisely such far-flung groups of men inherited them.
This was the weekend’s epiphany: though sea music’s roots may be humble, it played a not-insignificant role in building the first truly cosmopolitan society. The toil and strife of working and living at sea in the early industrial era appealed to very few, and commercial sailing crews hailed from across the globe. Ports like Liverpool, England were likewise very early stages for the multicultural melting pots and mosaics now typical of 21st-century urban capitals. A byproduct of such diversity was that shanties found their way into the crannies of the world, where they continued developing in idiosyncratic separation across generations of singers.
Eventually, I sat myself on a bench in front of a local chocolate shop, five feet away from legendary sea music performer Jerry Bryant and his guitar, banjo and concertina. Bryant is the reason I had made this pilgrimage to Essex in the first place. He doesn’t merely sing and play old nautical labor songs. He imbues their narratives with emotion, their volume with intention, their melancholy with infectious jouissance. “There’s a lot of sentimentality in sea-music lyrics—nineteenth-century men were willing to show emotion,” Bryant noted of “The Whaleman’s Lament,” a ballad likely dating to the 1830s. It describes a homesick whaler, trapped between hell at sea and debt on land, yearning for a comfort and refuge made fleetingly palpable by singing this song.
On the last morning of the festival, the Australian shanty group Forty Degrees South performed a song called “On the Middle Ground” on the lawn of a building dating to 1801 that today houses a toy store. It tells the story of a man from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who sails across two oceans to hunt sperm whales in the Tasman Sea, northwest of New Zealand. That the Australians traversed those ten thousand miles in reverse to sing about a sailor born two centuries ago in a town an hour from Essex makes this niche annual gathering a cosmopolis of its own.