The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #34323   Message #462680
Posted By: IanC
15-May-01 - 09:08 AM
Thread Name: The origin of Sea Chanteys
Subject: RE: The origin of Sea Chanteys

It's, of course, not the case that there are no call/response songs in any other form of English Language folk music. As with the singing of shanties aboard ship, most work songs mainly died out when repetitive physical work was no longer required. In the farther flung parts of Britain, however, some survived into the 20th Century, and there exist video recordings of (e.g.) people on Harris singing traditional work songs, including call/response forms. Most of these forms were not really appealing to early folk song collectors, even if they saw them, as they were generally more interested in what they considered to be the earliest "pure" ballad forms. This bias in collection can be well illustrated by the fact that (e.g.) choruses/refrains were considered to be a very late addition despite the fact that the first recorded song with music was a chorus song (Sumer is Icumen In, rather badly set out in DT)

Here it is, laid out as it appears in many anthologies (sometimes the 4 half-lines of the "verse" are written separately)

Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cucu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med, and springth the wode nu.
Sing cucu, nu, sing cuccu, Ne swike thu, niver nu

Awe bleateth after lomb, Lhouth after calve cu;
Bullock sterteth, bucke verteth, Murie sing cucu.
Sing cucu, nu, sing cuccu, Ne swike thu, niver nu

The form of this (ABC DEC) is, in fact, more similar to the (ABCD EBFD) form of many working shanteys than any of the various forms found in Courlander's "Negro Folk Music, USA", 1963 though I am making no claim that it was a work song(!)

Play songs, especially those associated with work, frequently preserve older work songs and there are many of these, some still being used in childrens' playgrounds round my way, which use a call-response format. I can provide more details, given a little time, if this cannot be taken as established.

Perhaps, along with what has already been said about the naturalness of work rhythms, there is no real necessity to take the origin of Sea Shanties out of context with other work songs. If this is so, it seems most likely to me that the form naturally evolved in situations where it was found to be beneficial. However, having said this, I think I'd be inclined to agree that something apparently took the shanty form to its peak in the early C19th, and this may well be as Cranky has said.