The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #152346   Message #3562662
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
30-Sep-13 - 12:34 AM
Thread Name: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
    Or perhaps it was that in Williams' time, primarily the late Victorian 1880s, such was at a low ebb. It is certain that obscenity of some degree was present during the earlier heyday of chanty singing, as still others testified. Russell asserted,

>>…the mariner is not very choice in his language. His working ditties are a little too strong for print, on the whole. The few examples I have seen in type are Bowdlerized out of knowledge. _He may have reformed in this matter of late years_; he may sing nothing to-day that is not virginal in purity; but in my time—and it is not so very long ago either—his working choruses reeking with forecastle fancies, were as full of the unrepeatable and the unprintable as his biscuit was of weevils. (Emphasis mine)<<

Russell's statement was published in 1889, whereas his own "time" was 1858-66. Harlow, too, testified to the use of obscene language in his American ship experiences of the 1870s. Experiencing sailing life in the same decade, the English chantyman Bullen justified indecent language in terms of the needed amusement it gave the working men.

>>Poor doggerel they were mostly and often very lewd and filthy, but [the lyrics] gave the knowing and appreciative shipmates, who roared the refrain, much opportunity for laughter… And although many a furtive smile will creep over old sailors' faces, when they hear these Chanties and remember the associated words that went with them, those words are not down here [in this collection]. <<

Although it is probably true that a lot of so-called obscenity in chanties would pale in comparison to some of the things sung in popular music today, neither was it limited to the merely suggestive and "bawdy" insinuations that one might imagine only upset upper class Victorian ears and "polite company." Capt. Robinson seems to indicate this:

>>In point of fact, many of the original words were quite unprintable, and never intended for delicate ears. For instance, in "Bangidero," "Galloping Randy Dandy" and "Slav Ho," the words of some verses were really shocking, and the choruses quite unfit to be written, yet they were three good chanties, too. <<

We might distinguish certain types of chanties from others. The three mentioned by Robinson appear to be items created after the "classic" period (i.e. 1860s and later), in an atmosphere—the stinking nitrate and guano trade to the rowdy West Coast ports of South America—that would seem to have inspired an ethos of obscenity. Further, these were not songs that I believe come close to the "original" style of chanty that was more African-American.