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'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties

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Gibb Sahib 30 Sep 13 - 12:32 AM
Gibb Sahib 30 Sep 13 - 12:34 AM
Gibb Sahib 30 Sep 13 - 12:35 AM
Gibb Sahib 30 Sep 13 - 12:36 AM
Gibb Sahib 30 Sep 13 - 12:38 AM
meself 30 Sep 13 - 01:17 AM
MGM·Lion 30 Sep 13 - 01:35 AM
Bert 30 Sep 13 - 04:06 AM
GUEST,Derrick 30 Sep 13 - 05:42 AM
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GUEST,Tug the Cox. 30 Sep 13 - 12:43 PM
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Steve Gardham 30 Sep 13 - 02:20 PM
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Subject: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 12:32 AM

This topic has certainly come up before. There is some discussion, for example, in the thread Stan Hugill's Performances . Probably some others, too. However, I did not find a dedicated thread.

The following is a DRAFT of something I am working on, a short statement on the topic. I am aware that Mudcat member, and maybe some others, has thought a lot about this. My thoughts come in the context of a wider discussion, in which I am trying to address this issue fairly briefly.

One of the assumptions in that wider discussion is that there is such a thing as a "core" repertoire and/or paradigm of the chanty genre. Not everyone will accept that assumption, but you need to be aware of it for my interpretation to make sense.

Anyway, here are the drafted thoughts - on which I welcome comments and criticisms.

(Embedded footnotes to references, and some formatting, like italics, are missing.)
***begin excerpt***

It is clear that chanty lyrics were often mundane, yet potentially witty at other times and, therefore, entertaining. Were they "dirty"? Some degree of bawdiness has come to be popularly associated with sailor culture, yet we must remember that chanty-singing did not belong exclusively to sailor culture either. Moreover, few specimens of dirty lyrics survive in the published literature. Still, there persists an idea that sailors' lyrics would have been very often obscene, sometimes along with the corollary that obscene lyrics must be more authentic. Historical statements on this issue are conflicting.
        At one end of the scale, we have the statement of Williams, the American sailor of partial African descent, who denied there being any obscenity in chanties.

>>Another thing is that, while many of these songs have stood the test of a century, or perhaps two, and have passed from lip to lip thousands of times over the airs to which they are sung, they have never changed. Still another somewhat remarkable fact is that thruout the whole list of known chanties there does not occur a single offensive word, and whenever any indecent language has been injected into one of our favorite chanties, it is at once expurgated by common consent. <<

I have included the remarks at the beginning of this passage because they seem so implausible. The songs "never changed"? Despite Williams' considerable experience, the statement sounds like wishful thinking and so his denial of indecent language, too, sounds incredible. In fact, the very "proper" English captain Whall said quite the opposite.

<<…seamen who spent their time in cargo-carrying sailing ships never heard a decent Shanty; the words which sailor John put to them when unrestrained were the veriest filth. <<

However, he continues,

>>But another state of things obtained in passenger and troop ships; here sailor John was given to understand very forcibly that his words were to be decent or that he was not to shanty at all.    <<

While this does not quite explain Williams' unfamiliarity with indecent chanties, it suggests the possibility of different norms in different spheres of activity. Moreover, obscenity, while present, was expressed with a strict sense of proper time and place. Yet another viewpoint, of non-sailor Terry, seems to argue that context was more or less irrelevant since only solo lyrics would contain bawdiness and these would not be heard at any significant distance.

>>The Rabelaisian jokes of the shantyman were solos, the sound of which would not travel far beyond the little knot of workers who chuckled over them. The choruses—shouted out by the whole working party—would be heard all over the ship, and even penetrate ashore if she were in port. Hence, in not a single instance do the choruses of any shanty contain a coarse expression.   <<

The last statement of Terry was famously contradicted by Hugill, who offered the example of the chorus to "Jamboree": "Jenny, keep your arsehole warm!" There is also Hugill's chorus to "Sacramento": "There's plenty of grass to wipe your ass on the banks of the Sacramento." These, however, seems to have been alternate forms of the choruses that, while known to Hugill in his time (1920s-30s), were not necessarily standard earlier. It may be that sailors became more obscene with their chanties as time went on.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 12:34 AM

    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.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 12:35 AM


    On this note: There may again have been correlations between ethnicity or cultural background of singers and the types of lyrics sung. Whereas French sailor songs are frequently full of double entendre statements about sex, and English sailor songs are known to be often coy yet equally bawdy, the American chanties from the classic era tended to be sad or else silly—echoes of slave songs or echoes of minstrelsy. While there is good reason why early commenters would not have printed obscene verses, they did also not make such remarks on the "unprintable" nature of lyrics as some of the later writers (i.e. Russell, 1889 among the first) did. The style of chanties changed with the widening of repertoire to songs of cultures outside that mainly African-American core. Perceptions of the degree of obscenity in the chanty repertoire were likely influenced when certain slices of the repertoire reflected on the genre as a whole. Such standout examples would have struck some observers—increasingly—as evidence that chanties were mainly in the spirit of visits to prostitutes on the Ratcliffe Highway, whereas sailors shipping in vessels where the songs were more romantic odes to "Sweet Roseanne, my darlin' chile" could remain reasonably dismissive of the lewd songs sung by some individuals. For example, Hugill points out again and again that the chanties associated with pumping tended to be more bawdy. These, too, seem to have been songs adapted from prior shore material in the English (or Anglo-American) tradition, which were easily adapted to this task. What Hugill calls "Slack Away Your Reefy Tackle," for instance, was a variation on older English bawdry (i.e. the late 17th c. ballad, "A Ship-load of Waggery" ). In a version heard in the docks of London, the song begins,

>>Every ship has a cabin

Every cabin has doors

Every sailor likes a nice girl

With nice pretty drawers.

Lower away your main t'gallant sail

Lower away your main t'gallant sail
You son of a whore. <<

The entire object of the song is to present verses, pertaining to sailing life, which end with an explicit or veiled bawdy image; the curse in the chorus merely adds to the coarse tone of the song. Songs on this pattern, however, appear to have been non-existent among the earlier chanty repertoire. My theory, restated, is that as the chanty genre grew, more and more bawdy songs from the English tradition—a part of the cultural tradition of sailors, rather than the musical-cultural heritage of the chanty genre—were brought into use as chanties. These songs were naughty by their very nature; that is, it was not the singer's incidental choice to make his lyrics, when improvising, of an obscene nature. The presence of these songs gave chanty singing by that time the appearance of being at least partially focused on bawdy themes.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 12:36 AM


    This theory of mine is not to deny that "ordinary," typical chanties would not also have contained obscenity. On the contrary, I think most of the above testimonies by sailors are in reference to typical chanties. The distinction would be that these were not obscene by their very design, but rather by the choice of lyrics invented by individual chantymen. Nor were they coyly expressed, but rather very matter-of-fact in their rough language. The following documented couplet from "Sally Brown" is an example of the style:

>>Oh Sally Brown my love grows bigger

But for Heavens sake don't f-ck that nigger. <<

A sailor's lines for "A Long Time Ago" included these brazen statements:

>>Oh, it's a long, long time since I've had a "short time"

Oh, it's a long, long time since I've had a good "f-ck"

And it's a long, long time since I've had a sore cock <<

Similar examples, however, are rare. Is it because they were "unprintable," or because they were not common? Unprintability, to be sure, was a reason why some did not get documented, but, with little evidence to the contrary, we must also suspect that there were places and times in chantying where lewd sentiment was far less common than popular tropes of the "Abel Brown"/"Bollocky Bill" sailor may lead us to imagine.
        In sum, the available evidence gives no reason to assert that chantying of the early decades—including the "core" repertoire—was particularly obscene. I have suggested that it may not have been until the 1860s, the earliest period known to people claiming obscenity, that the lyrical style took a turn. I have argued that it was more in the character of songs from European traditions to take up sexual themes, and speculated that sailors of later years took up obscene lyrics as part of their ethos. At that time, classics like "Sally Brown" and "A Long Time Ago," originally having chaste themes, were "corrupted," as it were. Finally, observations of chantying that placed weight on the items of repertoire from the bawdier song traditions—repertoire more at home at the pumps and capstan, rather than the halyards and windlass—would come up with an assessment that sailors' chanties were "dirty." Indeed, those observers, in the past and present, who tend to view the types of chanties less discriminately (even shading into forecastle songs) would get an impression of greater obscenity than those who focus on the formative period and repertoire of the genre.

***End excerpt***

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 12:38 AM

In my OP, I meant to acknowledge "I am aware that Mudcat member,"...Lighter. My apologizes for not acknowledging others.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: meself
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 01:17 AM

Interesting - thanks!

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 01:35 AM

Extremely cogent and interesting indeed. I am exercised as to the reason why, as you maintain a couple of times (eg 'repertoire more at home at the pumps and capstan, rather than the halyards and windlass') some tasks attracted more of what Bert Lloyd used to call the 'disobliging' sort of content than others?


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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Bert
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 04:06 AM

And just WHAT are you trying to say?

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: GUEST,Derrick
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 05:42 AM

            I suspect the answer to your question could be where the
shanties were used.
Capstan and pumping work was mainly done offshore, where the public could not hear them.
Halyard shanties could be used both at sea, and alongside when setting sails prior to sailing.
Windlass shanties would be used for heavy lifting such as cargo, again
when the ship could be heard by the public

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 05:49 AM

Thank you, Derrick. I assumed some such implication, and think your suggestion most convincing.


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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: meself
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 08:52 AM

My impression is that G.S. was trying to say what he in fact said.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: GUEST,Tug the Cox.
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 12:43 PM

An ols sailor talks about learniga lewd sea song.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 01:30 PM

Thanks for the feedback, guys.


It's an interesting question. I think (IIRC) it was Stan Hugill who emphasized that the body of pumping chanties contained a higher percentage of bawdy songs than the body of chanties ascribed to other tasks. I think this is a smart way of looking at it - i.e. breaking down the rather catch-all category of "chanties" into smaller repertories. That is one of the things that I am doing. In Hugill's case, I believe he reasoned that pumping was such constant, boring drudgery - not necessarily as hard a labor as other tasks, just boring - that sailors were inclined to bring in bawdy material out of desperation to relieve the boredom and have some laughs. I think it is a fairly common idea among current chanty enthusiasts, too, that pump chanties would be more bawdy, though I think that probably reflects a consensus developed from people reading Hugill and such.

I think it's a reasonable idea, though not particularly strong as an explanation. It's similar (in it's explaining power!) to my statement that the guano trade inspired bawdier songs.

My explanation is different. I believe there are songs (and forms, methods, etc) more "native" to the chanty genre and those that are like "immigrant" songs. By analogy, if you took the country of, say, Germany, you'd find many people that should be called "German" on the basis of their citizenship. However, among those there is a set of people that most would recognize as "German" based on their ethnicity or long established family history in the country. No liberal-minded person would excluded the more recent immigrants from full consideration as German citizens, but we'd be in a wacky world if we also did not recognize the historical dimension of "native Germans" as a "people." I think the later-developed definition of "chanty" as something encompassing every song that was ever sung during sailors' work is like German citizenship (or whatever). I'm happy to recognize all the songs as "citizens," but when it comes to making a cultural/historical analysis, I distinguish the "natives" and "recent immigrants." (Hence my assumption of a "core" to the genre.)

Anyway! The simplest way to explain, with that analogy in place, is that certain tasks were more open to admitting "immigrant" songs. Halyard hauling did *not* admit them. Percentage-wise, halyard chanties are the "purest" in having the distinct quality and repertoire of chanties. They borrowed many ideas from elsewhere, yes, but it all had to be smelted dow and assimilated into halyard chanty form. By contrast (and here I'm finally getting to the point!) the tasks of pumping (*especially at the type called a Downton pump) and capstan, according to my belief, were most admitting of "immigrants." Lots of material could be borrowed from "shore" unchanged, because the form of song needed for these tasks was not very particular.

These "open door" tasks were the ones that tended to let in songs from a different "culture" - some of which were songs that were bawdy by nature. The "native" culture did not tend to produce bawdy songs. Lewd, obscene, etc lines were incidental, and a result of the tendency to speak directly.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 02:20 PM

A few observations to add to the pot:

Whenever men/boys are kept away from restraining influences for lengthy periods of time in largish groups they tend to promote material that is of a less restrained nature. This will include all manner of folklore types, stories, songs, jokes, rhymes etc and cover all sorts of subjects, sex, scatology, racism, blasphemy and other forms of prejudice. Lying embedded in this it can also include the most sentimental drivel, and some of the most beautiful sentiments. Such happens in the forces, schoolyard, team dressing room, the men's bar etc. Why would being at sea be any different?

In answer to my own question, one, where the majority of the group were heavily religious.

The question was put why some chanties were pretty standard texts. In many cases the working conditions of the crews wouldn't allow any thinking time for making up new verses, particularly ad hoc, and particularly for the short haul type when the sole purpose was to get the job done as quickly as poss under difficult conditions. The slower, more mundane tasks, maybe.

Isn't Amsterdam one of the earlier chanties? The bawdy verses must have come first as they are part of the shore songs it originated from.

The forecastle songs must have included much that was bawdy, scatological etc and in the main (excuse pun)they could have got that out of their systems in that context.

The worse forms of scatology and filth I have ever seen come from printed material from the 17th and 18th centuries and the people who sang and were entertained by this must have been pretty literate.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 04:20 PM

Why would being at sea be any different?
I don't know. I guess my response would be, "It wouldn't"; I don't believe I would factor "at sea" into this at all.

I'll be the first to admit that maybe the question of "How obscene were chanties?" is not a very productive one. "How obscene were sailors' songs?" or maybe even "How obscene was sailor culture?" would give more to work with. My own task (FWIW) is addressing chanties specifically. It's a strange parsing, but I'd explain it by saying that the focus is not on the broader and more fruitful topic, "obscenity in song" - it's on chanties (and their characteristics, history, etc), within which a sub-topic comes about about how obscene were their texts.

I think this leaves out forecastle songs and such - indeed, it should (!) be pretty simple to disregard forecastle songs, so as not to corrupt the analysis of the chanties. I think there is a common wisdom nowadays that there are all these songs that were sometimes chanties and sometimes forecastle songs (and therefore cannot make a hard exclusion) . It's an appealing idea, especially since intelligent people know that lots of music/culture/etc is "fluid." Intelligent as that impulse may be, it turns out that the evidence, on the contrary, shows a clear divide. Examples of "crossover" songs probably number fewer than 10, even if certain dubious sources are to be believed.

Why do we sometimes tend to bring in forecastle songs at all? I assume it's because of the tendency to mix up the set of items "Chanties" with the set of items "Sailors' songs." But these sets just overlap. "Chanties" is not a set contained within "Sailors' songs" (and nor were they only part of the lives of men at sea); they overlap. Forecastle songs are not a significant part of the overlapping area. (And "forecastle songs," incidentally, were not limited to material in the traditions of the British Isles. Minstrel and other popular songs, with no connection to 17th-18th c. English bawdry, were at least as popular.)

My argument (i.e. in order to make an accurate assessment of obscenity in chanties) asks that the set of items, "Chanties," be further broken into overlapping sets of song-types. The key questions, I think, are: 1) Did the (A.) amount and/or did the (B.) nature of obscenity change over time (and if so, how/why/etc)? 2) How does the amount of obscenity break down in terms of those sub-sets of repertoire?

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 06:05 PM

The period we have a reasonable amount of bawdy material available to study runs from the 17th century onwards. Obviously the nearer we get to our own time the more material has been preserved, but what material survives would suggest that the nature of the material has not changed significantly during that 4 centuries as one would expect with material that by its very nature has been kept under wraps until c1950

'overlapping sets of song-types'. I presume here you are referring to origins and influences, as the only other way I know of classifying chanties is by their rhythm/tasks.

I only mentioned forebitters as something that would have definitely contained bawdy material. I'm acutely aware that chanties are very different in nature.

Regarding your assessment, you can really only go by the few first-hand accounts that you have given above, and these overwhelmingly point to the preponderance of bawdy inclusion. The fact that very little has survived as direct evidence is just unfortunate. By the time collectors came along who could get the singers to sing the real maccoy the day of the chantey was long gone.

I recorded an old Cape Horner in the 60s and whilst he sang chanties for real the versions he sang were standards and contained no bawdy at all. If they had he would have sung them, as when I first met him we were all singing plenty of bawdy material together in the pub but not chanties.

I'm not convinced that Stan's so-called bawdy repertoire actually consisted of chanties that had been sung by the real chantymen when chanties were at their height. I've no doubt that Stan had a healthy bawdy repertoire like the rest of us, but even in his young days the real singing of chanties was much influenced by what had been published.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 30 Sep 13 - 06:15 PM

Am reading and pondering. Will try to post tomorrow.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Dead Horse
Date: 01 Oct 13 - 04:27 PM

Consider this: At the start of a voyage, with a new crew who may or may not know the standard shanties, the shantyman would have been obliged to 'keep things simple'. After a few months at sea the crew would be more likely to instantly recognise which shanty was to be sung almost before the 'nightingale' had uttered a word. So then, and only then, would he introduce subtle differences (or the obscene verses)into his chosen lyrics in order to keep the crew amused or on their toes, so cementing his position at the head of the gang.
There also seems to be an assumption that shantymen knew the words to every shanty and that they had an inexhaustable repertoire. I challenge this. If it were so, the collector would have been able to get all his information from one source, and clearly that was not the case. The often heard repetition of a verse line is, to me, a sign that either the shantyman didnt know the correct next line, or that he had forgotten it and was unable to make one up on the spot, or that the fault lay with the collector.
I am not denigrating the shantyman here. It is hard enough to sing a shanty in a warm comfy folk club, without having to shout it out into a howling wind with the ocean doing its level best to drown me, thanks.
As for the earlier suggestion that capstan and pump shanties were not performed in port as often as they were at sea (where the public could not hear them) - rubbish.
On leaving port the capstan would invariable come into use for warping within the docks, for squaring up the yards ready to take sail or heaving the vessel up to its anchor.
On finishing a voyage the pumps would be used for the last and possibly only time to leave the ship dry before the crew were paid off.
The opposite view holds more credence, as tacks & sheets, halyard and stamp & go shanties would be used throughout a voyage in order to trim the sails and yards for the frequent changes in conditions encountered, or at the whim of the deck officer.
I am certain than rude verses would have been sung, but they were variations on standard shanties, to be sung when conditions were right and not otherwise.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 01 Oct 13 - 09:42 PM

Interesting discussion, Gibb. Interest in the topic of bawdy chanteys, I believe, stems largely from Hugill's practice of "camouflaging" and his promise of an uncensored collection. It's difficult not to try to tease out exactly what was "camouflaged." Neverthless I've decided it's largely futile. The altered words need not have included the rhyming word, which means that in some cases they could have been almost anything.

But the subject itself doesn't lend itself to solid conclusions.

First of all, what do the writers mean by a "dirty chantey" (or however they phrase it)? One that squarely addresses a bawdy theme (such as the "Crabfish" and "Ratcliffe Highway" versions of "Blow the Man Down")? Or, as is equally possible, do they mean a chantey that contains one ribald line or even word? And, as you observe, what we consider harmless or "good fun," at least some Victorians (like Baring-Gould) would have thought scandalous or obscene. A single word like "bitch" or "whore" or "arse" would have been enough to make a song thoroughly "obscene" to many people.

(I recently heard a fortyish Scotsman apologize to a group of Americans for telling a perfectly innocent anecdote that trivially included the "offensive" phrase "Bugger off!" Whatever his own estimation of it, experience must have taught him that even in 2013, "Bugger off!" might seem obscene to some people.)

Neverthless, it's hard to dismiss phrases like Whall's "veriest filth," Bullen's "very lewd and filhty," or Hugill's "obscene to a degree" as mere hyperbole.

I agree that Williams's words require some explanation. My guess, based on a long familiarity with chanteying, is that he meant that, as far as he knew, individual chanteys never (and that might include "rarely") changed their essential character or subject matter. As you say, he could not have been thinking literally of specific phrasing. "Boney," for example, is always about Napoleon, and the main incidents recounted don't change much. Williams may have felt that different verses appearing in different performances simply meant that the singer had forgotten some from a much longer original. Even scholars used to assume that all versions of a folk song must have descended from a single a ancestor that they might be able to reconstruct, so it may well be that Williams held the same uncritical view of chanteys: one person "wrote" a text and melody in the distant past and all subsequent singers tried their best to reproduce it. But we're getting off the topic.

Williams obliquely admits that "indecent language" was not uncommon in chanteys,but he implies that it was mainly improvised: "expurgated by common consent" can only mean "sung once and then forgotten." To say that chanteys contained "not a single offensive word" must then mean that no such words could have been present *in the pristine original.*

The statement seems less bizarre if, as seems perfectly likely, Williams had only heard chanteys with innocent themes. Why should he then believe that the original and ideal version could have contained any indecent language? Particularly if the indecent language he'd actually heard had been ad libbed only. It may also be that he was defending the moral character of sailors in general by fudging the facts a little. But his testimony does suggest that one *could* make many voyages in the late 19th century without hearing a chantey that was centrally concerned with sex or scatology.

Today it's probably impossible to belong to a beer-drinking rugby club and make a similar statement.

Terry's claim that chantey choruses were always "clean" is not untruthful, just a hasty conclusion drawn from his own experience. Hugill's experience was different and more extensive. And remember that Carpenter and others collected texts of "Jamboree" with the innocent chorus of "Jenny get your oatcake done!" Just how common the scatological chorus really was, we have no way of knowing.

It may not quite be comparing apples with oranges to suggest that the bawdy songs collected by Vance Randolph in the Ozarks represent more or less the level of working-class lewdness in the chanteys. Much of what Randolph collected was learned by his informants around 1900 or earlier.

Whether the chanteys got bawdier over time is unknowable. It is certainly not measurable. At the level of improvised lines, individual chanteymen could, in certain circumstances, always make up anything they wanted. The words didn't even have to rhyme. A better question is whether the proportion of fundamentally bawdy chanteys to all chanteys increased. But this is probably also unknowable.

I don't quite follow your statement that chanteys like "A Ship Load of Wagery" seem to be "non-existent among the earlier shanty repertoire." After all, that one lasted well from the 17th century into the 20th!

Steve undoubtedly knows more about 17th and 18th century broadsides than I do. But even many works of the "elite" poet, the Earl of Rochester, seem astoundingly coarse today (look no further than his bawdy farce "Sodom"). The question, though, is not whether individual chanteymen had dirty minds; it's how pervasive that style of singing was at any given time.

All I can suggest in answer to the question of whether the chanteys got steadily dirtier is that at least some modern, thoroughly bawdy songs, as sung by ruggers and servicemen, do seem to have gotten more insistently and imaginatively offensive over the years. Another unanswerable question.

(Consider this. In the letter-expurgated "Sally Brown" verse from Gordon, would any modern singer actually sing "my *love* grows bigger?" I doubt it. Had the source sung a different word, however, he could easily have left out some of the letters.)

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 01 Oct 13 - 09:50 PM

Dead Horse, we mostly agree, but I think the repeated solo lines were perfectly normal and typical. Hugill says he heard several old but not forgetful chanteymen sing that way, and the vast majority of chanteys collected by Sharp, Grainger, Carpenter, and others from actual performance repeat the solo line.

The advantage, as you say, would be to give the singer more time to ad lib if necessary. But that's not to say that only poor chanteymen sang that way. The evidence is otherwise.

If they'd been singing in folk clubs, they'd undoubtedly have changed their habits. But they weren't.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Bert
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 02:08 AM

I think that we have to realize that the whole concept of obscenity is the result of immature, sexually repressed people trying to impose their warped view of morality onto everyday language.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: GUEST,Derrick
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 05:03 AM

Dead Horse,
          In the docks I worked in, warping vessels around the harbour was done using capstans on shore,power driven by my time.
A ship at anchor is moored offshore,a vessel alongside is secured by mooring lines.
Pumps were used alongside,as were the clean shanties when they could be overheard.
Yards were hauled aloft using winches or windlasses,when secured aloft they were trimmed using hand hauled ropes.
In the latter days of sail when crews were smaller even the sails were trimmed using winches.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 07:49 AM

Bert, so what?

A further point about the chanteys is that except for the virtually unique "Cruising 'Round Yatmouth/ Ratcliffe Highway" family, their ribaldry, as Hugill says, didn't rely on double-entendre or ren-faire innuendo, a clever style presumably more likely to appeal to modern folkies. The few examples we have confirm that it was straightforward, unapologetic, and no more or less "witty" than other chantey lyrics.

As the Gordon ex. shows, sailor ribaldry could also be racist - as one would expect from the racist era in which chanteys were common.

(I've switched over to the "chantey" spelling because of the persuasive evidence, unearthed on another thread, that the word really does come, ultimately, from French "chanter." Maybe I'll switch back some day.)

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Dead Horse
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 08:02 AM

Quite so Derrick. But you are describing a well appointed port with power capstans etc. I should guess that most of the vessels also had power themselves, and access to steam or turbine engined tugs etc, and that a shanty was seldom heard at all.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: GUEST,Derrick
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 08:53 AM

True Deadhorse, in my time (40 years ago) the capstanss were powered,before the advent of steam and electricity the same techique was used with manual capstans.The use of tugs in confined waters such as a basin is not impossible but tricky. Shanties by the 60,s were largely sung by dry land sailors in folk clubs.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 03:56 PM

Gibb will no doubt give us chapter and verse, but the impression I get from reading around the subject is that chanteying gradually gained momentum from the 1830s possibly reaching a peak by the 1860s and declined from then onwards with the increase in steam power and increased mechanism. To me this means descriptions from people's memories upto c1900 would still be valid but after this their value would begin to decrease. Certainly by the 1930s I would be wondering how much any chanteys collected were influenced by what had already been published.

Jon makes the very strong point that many of the well-known chanteys have pretty standard texts that are well consistent, Hanging Johnny, Blow the Man Down, Rio, Whiskey, etc.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: GUEST,Big Al Whittle
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 04:23 PM

Its an intriguing picture that it summons i the mind.....

The shanty man sat on the capstan mouthing filth and the gallant sail-i-ors looking askance like Mr Godfrey in Dad's Army, saying, I'm sorry I don't like that sort of thing.....

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 05:09 PM

> reaching a peak by the 1860s and declined from then onwards with the increase in steam power and increased mechanism.

Lloyd held a similar view, which seems plausible on the surface. (A decline in tasks requiring the use of shanties results in the decline of shantying.) But I'm not sure what "decline" means here.

Were fewer shanties introduced after 1870?

Were there fewer shanty "performances" after 1870? (There were more machines, but there were also far more ships and sailors!)

Were earlier shanties "better" (more musical, more coherent, better "written")?

Did the lyrics of shanties begin notably to fragment and decompose? Did the "standard versions" get shorter?

Were post-1870 shantymen less proficient? Were their repertoires smaller?


It seems impossible to answer any of these questions. The necessary research was never done, and probably could not have been. There isn't even much basis for conjecture.

How many of Hugill's extended lyrics were fleshed out by his own creativity (presumably mostly at sea)? We don't know, but the brevity of most other collectors' texts certainly raises questions. At any rate, there must have been a fair number of creative shantymen whose personal innovations, clean or otherwise, never traveled very far.

It's interesting to consider Rutzebeck's rather literary texts in this light.

All we can say safely is the obvious: that by the time big sailing ships became few in number, there was far less shantying being done.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 02 Oct 13 - 06:46 PM

One thing that goes against this trend of decline is the last gasp of the sail merchantmen with ever increasing competition from steam, and smaller crews, making chanteys more necessary, but it's likely that by 1900 there weren't many tall ships left trying to compete.

By 'decline' I simply meant they had outlived their usefulness as you summarised.

As you say, John, we are left with a few contradictory accounts after the event, and what is likely, looking at the various factors involved.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 28 May 20 - 02:12 PM

Sir Richard Runciman Terry, "Sailor Shanties," Music and Letters II, 1920, p. 267. Though some chanteys (like "Boney "and "Reuben Ranzo") had various stereotyped verses, Terry's first sentence is largely correct:

"Each shanty had one or two stereotyped verses, after which the shantyman extemporised on any topics he chose. There was no need for any connection or relevancy between one verse and another, nor were rhymes required. The main thing that mattered was that the rhythm should be preserved, and that the words should be such as would keep the workers merry. Great license was taken in this respect, and the intimacy of the shantyman's topics was such as to make his extemporised verses unprintable. As Capt. Whall says—no seaman in a cargo-carrying ship ever heard a “decent* shanty, and in passenger vessels the shantyman was given the option of “decent words or no shanty.” He mentions the notorious “Hog's-eye man’’ (to which I refer later) as a case in point. It is curious that some of the loveliest melodies were those to which the lewdest kind of words were usually fitted."

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: meself
Date: 29 May 20 - 12:28 AM

"the intimacy of the shantyman's topics was such as to make his extemporised verses unprintable." I love that - the "intimacy". It just sounds so ... warm and cuddly and tender and loving - how could they possibly be "unprintable"?

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: sciencegeek
Date: 29 May 20 - 02:41 AM

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it turns out that obscenity is in the mind of the listener. Born and raised in the Victorian Era, Sir Richard Runciman Terry along with his uncles, from whom he learned many shanties, were products of their times. Sir Terry wrote of how as a young boy he would encounter those awkward pauses and discomfort as the adults were confronted with his innocence questions regarding some of the content of songs he had heard down at the docks... and how they skirted around giving an answer. From reading his books I get the impression that he really would have liked to just put them down as he had heard them, but knew it would be professional suicide since he was earning his living as a music critic, author, speaker and performer.   But then again, no publisher would ever consider such a project so it really was never an option.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 29 May 20 - 08:35 AM

Legman wrote that Joanna Colcord expressed her frustration that she had exactly that problem. She wanted to print what she'd heard at sea in the '90s (or received from correspondents later) but was unable to do so.

My impression is that there must have been a limited number of free-floating bawdy verses, any one of which would instantly produce an "unprintable chantey" by the polite standards of the time - which were notoriously straitlaced anway.

My guess is that most (not all, by any means) of the bawdry appeared in those unrhymed, impromptu verses - including one-off insults directed at the ship's officers and others.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 29 May 20 - 09:56 AM

Terry: "It is curious that some of the loveliest melodies were those to which the lewdest kind of words were usually fitted."

That certainly sounds like ad-libbing. The "loveliest melodies" are usually said to include, in roughly descending order) "The Wild Missouri" ("Shenandoah," even though Shenandoah doesn't always get mentioned), "Away, Rio!" "Santy Anna," "Blow the Man Down," and "A-Roving."

Long ago I mentioned that one embarrassed American collector had called an otherwise ordinary version of "Matty Groves" a "bawdy song" just because the singer had a line like "Matty screwed Lord Donald's wife." He apologized for printing the song, but it was a Child ballad, after all.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 31 May 20 - 03:18 AM

My Liverpool mates used to sing:
Shenadoah, I fucked your daughter,
I plugged her hole and stopped her water"

Doubt if it's traditional

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 31 May 20 - 06:18 AM

Seem to remember a similar verse in a version of Sally Brown. Again it would be almost impossible now to know if it came from a pre-revival chanty. However I'd be surprised if it didn't.

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Subject: RE: 'Obscenity' in Chanties/Shanties
From: Lighter
Date: 31 May 20 - 07:15 AM


“[W]hen crossed, as it often was, with Sally Brown, …not even the most broad-minded collector could call it clean!”

Only a few lines from the bawdy “Sally Brown” would suffice to dirty up “Shenandoah,” particularly since its music is regarded as one of the most melodically beautiful in tradition. Legman prints one stanza, which he collected independently in 1954 from a U.S. Navy veteran who’d learned it as the complete song during World War II:

        Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter….
        I love the place where she makes water….

This is notably milder than Jim's version.

Cf. the similar stanza in the English country song “Twankydillo,” allegedly collected by Hammond in Dorset in 1906:

If ever I should meet with the old shepherd’s daughter,
I’ll stop up the hole where she do make water.

Or was it? Frank Purslow printed it these words in The Constant Lovers (1972), p. 105, attributing it to Hammond, who supposedly got it from singer John Hallett.

Yet when James Reeves printed Hallet’s “Twankydillo” in The Everlasting Circle (1960), pp. 270-71, he noted that Hammond had written “Final verse too indecent to write down.”

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