People have always loved a good sea shanty. These are festive, raucous working songs that leverage a spirit of play and camaraderie in order to mitigate the effects of drudgery, danger, desire, affliction, addiction, and even simple boredom. Sea shanties can be made up by groups impromptu or by a lonesome individual. Either way, they are one defiant way people maintain morale during trying times.
We’ve collected the 15 best sea shanties for you. Most are old and a few are new, but they all carry a spirit of jolly irreverence for whatever misadventure about which their creators have sung.
1. Spanish Ladies
This classic, well-known sea shanty was made popular again by the blockbuster film Jaws when the crew sang as they began their search for the titular shark. It hails back to 1789, and the lyrics appear to tell its own origins—a group of British sailors who find dalliance with some beautiful Spanish women and rue having received orders to return home. It has everything you could ask for in a sea shanty: fun, sailing, and lust.
2. Leave Her, Johnny
We’re beginning to see a recurring theme with the sea shanties we find; sea-faring men meeting women in foreign lands and who must leave them when their jobs are done. Leave Her, Johnny is sung by a fellow sailor pleading with Johnny to take up his lines and find the courage to leave his new love wherever he’s found her. The sadness in this sea shanty is tinted with a shade of rebellion against the institutions that force a love-struck man to act against the interests of his heart.
3. Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate
This is one of the newer sea shanties, but far from the newest. This is a working man’s song that hails from the British Royal Navy sailors travailing in the Napoleonic era. After listening to the first two on our list, you’ll find there is more structure to this song. Singers take turns singing solo and in the chorus rather than in the more riotous everybody-sings-at-will form of most songs of this kind.
4. Blow The Man Down
Easily the most recognizable sea shanty, the title theme of Spongebob Squarepants is inspired by this tune. The song tells of the tragedy of sailors being kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the act that came to be known as being ‘shanghaied.’ This was done by catching sailors over a trap door in drinking taverns, hence the phrase “blow the man down.” It is one of the few remaining historical records of a sinister slavery practice that is rarely discussed today.
5. Roll Northumbria
Likely one of the oldest subject matters on this list, or any list, Roll Northumbria is based on the Kingdom of Northumbria from 600-900 CE. Given new life by the popular Vikings television series, this is now one of the most well-known sea shanties in the world.
6. My Mother Told Me
A song passed down to us from the Vikings, My Mother Told Me has been popularized by the television show Vikings. That being the case, we only hope that people appreciate the historical relevance of this song, and understand that we are learning things about an ancient culture that have not been recorded faithfully anywhere else.
7. Lowlands Away
Lowlands Away is a popular sea shanty that can be found in the video game, Assassin’s Creed. While its origins are uncertain, it is believed that it is Scottish and first sung in the 17th century. It is about a love lost to tragedy and travel believed to have been inspired by a man’s journeys to and from the African continent as the American colonies took shape.
8. Roll The Old Chariot
Originating from early African American culture, Roll The Old Chariot is a story of black slavery and Scottish slavery amid the brandy trade in the early days of pre-republic America. It is the origin of the slang term, Nelson’s Blood, for brandy (or some say rum). Nelson was an unfortunate sailor who was buried in a cask of liquor in an attempt to preserve his body.
9. The Cruel Wars
This sea shanty is a combination of traditional folk songs. It is a story of conscription, fighting, glory, and tragic disability, which rings true for fighting men from all places and all ages. It is a rare and valuable reminder of the horrors of war and the way men once revered for their courage and valor are cruelly forgotten in their infirmity.
10. Roll, Boys, Roll!
We have, once again, a sea shanty found in the video game Assassin’s Creed. It has its origin in the English journeys to and from the Caribbean. It is the story of an English sailor falling in love with a black slave and having to struggle against prejudice as well as the pressure to leave her behind as the ship and crew set sail for home.
Originating from New Zealand, Wellerman carries the tale of working men waiting with great anticipation for a shipment of alcohol. Far from a tale of dissipation, it was inspired by the baleful dissatisfaction of poor, working people who had little to look forward to other than the occasional strong drink. This song is the inspiration for the modern comedic sea shanty, The Kittyman Sea Shanty, discussed below.
12. Drunken Sailor
Also known as What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this old sea shanty is hinted at in the cartoon version of Lord Of The Rings from the 1970s, in a scene when hungry trolls are considering what to do with the hobbits and dwarfs they have captured. The song itself asks the apt question of what a captain and crew should do with a sailor who is too drunk to perform his duty on a ship at sea. As cruel as the lyrics seem, it was a serious consideration at a time when a dead weight on a seafaring vessel could spell doom for the entire crew and cargo.
13. You Can’t Hold A Good Man Down
This sea shanty tells a tale of war, clandestine ship battles, running aground, ghost ships, and of course, drinking among sailing men in an unarguably desperate time. Sometimes known as the Swiss Army knife of sea shanties, this track covers almost all the terrors and trials a sea-faring man could face.
14. Seaman’s Hymn
This old song of the sea has been revitalized by the great David Coffin. It tells the tale of a brave, unknown man who called for peace in a time of war. It is based on the tune Patience from Wales. That is a title translation that will surely bring tears of hope to the eyes of anyone who has known struggle and loss.
15. The Kittyman Sea Shanty
Clearly done for fun and inspired by Wellerman, this sea shanty by the Trailer Park Boys is a loving homage to the tradition of sea shanties. The Kittyman Sea Shanty is the story of some starving cats who long for nourishment and plan against fate to get it, but instead, they get their paws on a large amount of catnip and party themselves into dissolution. It is silly for sure, but the performers take the song seriously. It is certainly meant for fun and is anything but irreverent.
You might have noticed that all these songs come from a place of passion deep in the guts of the people who sing them, even the silly ones. They are all intensely human, and the best of them are the ones that carry you away like the crashing tide.
The staff behind Music Grotto create thorough editorial pieces from our relationships with media/music journalists and writers all over the world. We directly publish pieces written and researched by accomplished writers and our adherence to strict editorial processes ensures quality opinions and facts are expressed in all of our featured pieces.