PEMcast 21, Part 1: The sea chanty craze Transcript

[The Late Show: My ears are blessed with a Tick Tok meme…]

Dinah: You’re hearing part of a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he claims to have called the ongoing sea chanty craze. And here’s a February sing-along on Facebook Live.

[David Coffin: Presumably you’re in your house by yourself. Just sing whatever you want. Who's gonna know? (singing)]

Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin. This winter’s warm embrace of sea chanties on Tik Tok and other social media has delighted us here at PEM. Founded in 1799 by the members of the East India MARINE Society, here at our museum, the sea chanty craze never ends.

[Sound of David Coffin singing Blow the Man Down]

Dinah: This is David Coffin, host of the Facebook event you heard earlier, where nearly 1,000 people tuned in. Social media has been very good to David during the pandemic. He’s been performing concerts on Zoom and uploading videos that go viral.

[Roll the Old Chariot]

David: So when somebody calls me says they want to talk to me about sea shanties. I know where they were….they went on YouTube, they punched in sea shanties, and up came roll the old chariot. It's probably right at the top. I think it has more hits than any other sea shanty out there. Just like the cat video of sea shanties.

[Sound of David Coffin singing Roll the Old Chariot]

David: Sea chanties were sung by sailors to get the work done on board these ships. So singing shan3es not only established the rhythm but it created an energy. And to have young people today, you know, getting all caught up in the 3k tok sea shanty craze is just phenomenal. I just love it. Their just so hooked in…you know, kids are singing with people they've never met, and probably never will. songs they never heard of but why are they doing it because there is energy to it.

Dinah: David is a master chanty man, Artist-in-Residence with the esteemed Revels performance theater group and educator of maritime life. He lives right up the coast from Salem in Gloucester and is an 11th generation Coffin, from the whaling Coffins of Nantucket.

David: The original Coffin, Tristram Coffin, came over from Devonshire, England in 1645 landed up the road in Newbury and built the house, which still stands today. And then in 1659...he went out to Nantucket, settled out there and learned the art of wailing from the Native Americans.

David: Most people think, white men singing sea shanties out of England, it goes much further back than that.….they were work songs that enslaved people were singing in the fields in Africa, and, and then in the West Indies, and they found their way on board ships.

Dinah: Whaling learned from Native Americans. Sea chanties taken from African work songs. Life at sea is a more complex mix than many nostalgic portrayals might have us think. Salem, for instance, was a cultural mishmash of people during the golden age of sail. The museum has records of something like 75,000 voyages departing Salem. The crew lists in ship’s logs reveal people born all over the world, who called Salem home.

David: These were useful songs, to sing on a ship to establish that rhythm that was happening in the fields to keep people working... And, and the nature of a sea shanty as you make up verses, and you know, some verses become popular than the oral tradition kicks in and they start to get handed around for sure, to ship to ship to ship to ship. And then they land in a pub and it becomes a pub song or it lands in, you know, in England in a parlor and becomes a parlor song or a parlor song becomes a sea chanty. When everyone is traveling around the world on ships, songs move along with them.

Dinah: David teaches about life at sea in schools, these days over Zoom.

David: When I do my programs in schools, I tell kids, you can't not sing on the sea shanty, I defy you to not sing.

Dinah: Singing sea chanties, I’m learning, is an inclusive activity.

David: The nature of a sea shanty is that they are literally for everyone. You think about who sang the songs, they weren't trained singers. The shanty man was the shanty man, because he could remember the words, because he knew the songs. Or he figured out that if I know enough songs, I won't have to do the manual labor, I can stand or sit and sing. You know that. That's a nice job. Sailors, obviously not trained singers, but they sang anyway. So you know, because you can't help it. And it's distracting from the fact that you're walking around in a circle for hours of hauling on a line for hours. In fact, you don't want to be a trained singer to get the real authentic sound.

Dinah: This music is baked right into his own DNA, says David.

David: It being part of my heritage, I feel a strong connection to it. It's part of our heritage here in Massachusetts. Nantucket was the largest whaling port in the world. Back in the 1800s, early 1800s, rival whaling port to New Bedford. In schools, they teach colonial history, and they never teach anything about whaling, they don't touch it. And, you know, I sort of get it, but it is part of our history, why deny it, we should learn from it, understand it. And whaling was the biggest industry of the time. And, and it was also, you know, one of the most dangerous professions at the time as well.

Dinah: There is a teachable moment there, for sure, about protecting wildlife. But there is another, less obvious environmental lesson.

David: There's a direct tie to alternative sources of energy. Oil came from whales only at that point we didn’t have the technology to know it was in the ground. Should we be pulling all the oil out of the earth or should we be thinking of other sources of energy? There are infinite number of renewable sources out here and we should be tapping into those so there's, there's a very close tie in and when you think about sea shanties, this is this is the really cool thing….123 pole 123 pole for four hours is going to be pretty boring. So thinking chanties not only established the rhythm, but it created an energy. And, you know, you want your crew to be energized to stamp around a capstan for four hours. So, a song that creates energy is pretty important.

Dinah: David’s entire life changed, this energy came to him, heck his family’s roots were revealed to him, when he picked up a small instrument called the concertina.

[Music: Steven Arnston - Bow to your neighbor]

David: And that brought me to maritime music because it was very often found on board a ship because they're small and you can't you can't bring your Steinway.

Dinah: A concertina has expanding bellows and buttons and looks like a small accordion.

David: They are small and they're very loud. So having them onboard a ship out in the wind, you can still hear it.

[Consterina sound]

David: It was through the concertina that I learned my whole family history. I had no idea that we were ship captains and whaling men and harpooners. I had no idea that an ancestor of mine was involved in the Boston Tea Party. So one of the things I get across to kids is you can learn history from any number of places. And there is an enormous amount of history to be learned in these old songs, these traditional songs, they tell a story.

Dinah: (tape) Can you describe the scene where we're standing right now?

David: We are overlooking Good Harbor Beach and the remnants of a storm that came through a few days ago. The surface settled down just enough so that the local surfers are willing to come out. They actually closed the road on the back shore because the waves were coming right over the breakwater there. But we're looking out on Thatcher Island, Twin Lights over there in Rockport and then Salt Island right off the coast. And the surfers are out today. And the parasailers are out there. So it's a nice gray day here on the back shore of East Gloucester.


David: There's chanteys where there are verses of rounding the horn and, and not making it or you'll curse your mother for having you. Because you know, you're just holding on for dear life.

Dinah: Standing, looking out over the edge of a cliff down at the roiling sea that day, I felt a twinge of sea sickness and -- also -- like holding on for dear life.

Dinah: (tape) Do you think people got swept up during the pandemic, or have been swept up by the idea of, oh, if I could just be out on a ship, you know, we could all be tested and would be like, free of the pandemic?

David: Well, I don't know, you know. I wouldn't necessarily want to be out on a boat today. These waves, you're gonna be rocking and rolling all over the place .I think a lot of people think it sounds really wonderful, romantic and cool. But those are the people who've never who've never done it.

Mary: Melville discussed it. It’s a way to escape and there is an essential sense that there is a freedom in that which in fact, doesn't really exist on shipboard.

Dinah: The renewed interest in shanties has much to do with romanticizing the whole seafaring experience, says Mary Malloy, a classically trained musician and performer. Mary taught American maritime history and culture at The Sea Semester program out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Mary: I mean, a ship is about the least democratic place you will ever find.

[SNL What do you say boys? Heave Ho. First we go to Hawaii and then up to Alaska and then back to Hawaii, China, Brazil and then Alaska again. The trip takes 18 months….What?...(singing)]

Dinah: Saturday Night Live recently explored, through sea chanties, how not fun life aboard a ship can be.

Mary: So your schedule is rigidly dictated to you, the position that you hold on board the ship is not negotiable. But nonetheless, there are those moments….I do remember, you know, one evening as the sun is going down and the stars are coming out and balmy South Pacific night, there is something that's really very powerfully romantic about that.

[Concertina sound]

Dinah: Mary’s husband is Stuart Frank, a renowned authority on sailor songs and shipboard music. PEM’s Phillips Library collection includes Stuart’s books written on the subject. The two of them met at the Sea Music Festival in San Francisco many years ago. For 40 years, they have performed these songs, discovered in the shipboard journals and diaries of young men.

Mary: Well, you know, it's strange how one's path is directed along, you know, the course of life.

Dinah: Sea chanties were not used in a work sense at the Sea Semester program because of the structure of the rig on those vessels. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t sing, says Mary.

Mary: I always started the very first class on shore by singing. And I found that one of the great things about these songs is that they're easy to sing. College age students today have very few opportunities to actually do group singing, unless they go to church. Group singing is part of human nature, I believe. And my students at sea semester loved to sing. So we sang songs, both onshore and at sea.

[Facebook live song]

Dan: And one of my favorites, of course, being a native of Cape Cod.. Cape Cod boys, they have no sleds. They slide down dunes on codfish heads. Cape Cod doctors, they have no pills. They give their patients cod fish gills. Cape Cod cats, they have no tails. Heave away, heave away...It doesn't exactly remind me of home, but close.

Dinah: This is Dan Lipcan, Director of PEM’s Phillips Library.

Dan: So we're looking at a selection of books on sea songs and chanties.

[Blow the Man Down]

Dinah: The recording of Blow the Man Down, also the title of a 2019 film set on the coast of Maine, in which David Coffin played the shantyman, recently entered our collection at PEM, allowing future generations to hear a song from our chanty music collection being performed by an expert.

Dan: It's always really fun and of course, thrilling for us to show off these kind of smaller aspects of our collection.

Dan: So this one is this one is fun. This one is called Watch Below. It's actually a publication of the shell Petroleum Company from 1952. Along with the music and the lyrics of each of these sea songs, you know, there's kind of brightly colored painting for each of these songs. Here's a drunken sailor, with a black eye and red cheeks laying on the ground, along with the song whiskey Johnny. So these are all kind of vibrantly colored paintings. Here's more of a ballad A long time ago of a sailor holding a hand of a woman with a parasol in a long green dress.

Dinah: (tape) It looks like a sad goodbye.

Dan: It does I guess. I guess he's going to the boat to ship off. So they're saying they're farewells. This is by Stanton King who calls himself the official government shanty man.

Dinah: (tape) Do you love imagining what the library personal libraries look like in these homes that have these books?

Dank: I do. I do. And I think, you know, many libraries in the area I think had books like this because we have so many gifts from folks who were local.

Dan: This one here, American sea songs and shanties has private signals on the endpapers including as you can see here, the Crowninshields of Salem, which is pretty fun, and I'm a flag guy. So I love the flag stuff. Some of these have slightly different lyrics from version to version...the first couple of lines here seem to be fairly consistent. Oh, the times are hard and the wages low. Leave her Johnny leave her. And now ashore again, we'll go it's time for us to leave her. The grub was bad, the voyage long leave her Johnny Leave her. The seas were high, the gills were strong. It's time for us to leave her. “Leave Her Johnny” songs seem to be very much about complaining about all the things that happened on the ship that you know, we don't have to worry about anymore because now we're leaving, you know, we're gonna get our pay, and we're gonna move on. I also have a few logbooks that don't have shanties per se, but do have some poems and songs written out in them. So that's another aspect of our collection that contain this kind of material.

Dinah: Of the 3,000 logbooks in our collection, Dan shows me his favorite. It is the journal of an 1840 voyage on the Brig Chase. Though the cover is coming off this whaling ship log, Dan calls this the perfect logbook.

Dinah: (tape) Is that a watercolor?

Dan: This is a watercolor of a ship on the ocean. So you have this vibrant blue of the water...And you see, you know, the couple of masts there and all the sails. On the title page, there's actually a list of the crew which is very important for research purposes.

Dinah: Here in loopy handwriting, you can see the names of those on the boat and their positions: first, second and third mates, boatswains, the stewards.

Dan: And every so often you have these really adorable watercolors of the ship on the water kind of with a sunset behind it. You have a ship with a little American flag showing there you have a look over a particular town, a coastal town where you see the hills and with a little cape extending into the water and the houses all clustered along the shore.

Dinah: Every few pages, there is a whale stamp, which looks like it’s been pressed there by the little hands of a child, indicating the capture of a whale and how many barrels of oil.

Dan: And it's just a really charming, really charming logbook...stamps of dolphins all over the entry for Saturday, June 6, 1840, more little water colors.

Dinah: In these logbooks, in addition to meticulous drawings and tiny paintings and letters and thoughts in general, you have songs.

Dan: Let's see. Great such infringement of our right with insolent disdain. Yet we will. loyal subjects be to any loyal King. And in defense of such a prince, spend every precious thing. But when our Prince a tyrant grows, a parliament grows worse. New England's blood shall never bear this ignominious purse.

Dinah: I just feel like they're sitting around on the deck. They're drinking rum. They're writing this together....And here we are.

Dan: Here we are. I mean, this is you know, Revolutionary times, right. And if these are, in fact, songs, I would have loved to have heard these actually performed, right. I mean, It's all well and good to have these things printed in books, but really, they're there for performance there for singing, they’re for hearing, and experiencing.

Mary: So I will sing you a capstan Shanty. So basically what you want for this is you want a rhythm that's just moving, forward marching, marching, marching.

Dinah: Mary Malloy again.

Mary: And this is one that also deals with Irish immigration. So it's a kind of an interesting song to me. In 1841…

[Mary singing]

Dinah: A strong rhythm. Easy to sing. These are the ingredients of a good shanty, says Mary.

Mary: And Tiktok has provided the community for singing that's lacking in the not only in the pandemic era, but in fact, I think that had been largely lost. So this has really revived them in a wonderful way. But I think that it also allows people to participate in a community that I hope will extend past the pandemic and maybe be found in live circles as well as online.

Mary: I mean, there's something about adding your voice to someone else's to make these harmonic patterns. There's something very visceral about it. I'm not sure I can actually explain it. But I know what it feels like. And I think now, so do millions of others.

[Lobo Loco Prima Concertina]

Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. We’ll leave you with one more bit of maritime goodness.

Dan Finamore: The life for the sailors, it got more arduous with the length of the voyage. So you could have fresh food and fresh vegetables for the first few weeks and then it quickly ran out. Whaling voyages tended to be really long. But they also came ashore at times, where you could replenish. Coming ashore in a tropical paradise and the ships would be met by people from the islands who would paddle out in capes to trade with them.

Dinah: The conversation you are overhearing is Dan Finamore in our maritime gallery. This tour is for Chef Bill Collins. Our chef friend is making a new line of maritime-themed chocolates for Harbor Sweets of Salem. The conversation included motifs like scrimshaw and sailors’ tattoos, flavors from the spice trade like cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as other things the Salem sailors would have traded like coffee and tea, madeira and rum.

Dan Finamore: At the end of the day, I’m probably going to eat any chocolate that’s handed to me and there are other elements of it that appeal. The marketing, the packaging, the shape, the color, all of that stuff.

Dinah: Located along the harbor in Salem, Harbor Sweets was founded in 1973. Each year, close to a quarter of a million packages are sold and shipped all over the U.S. and to far-flung locations such as Switzerland and Japan. Look for the new chocolate line to be sold in the PEM Shop and online at As well as a new stock of sea chanty books for your singing pleasure.


Dinah: This episode was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin. It was edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. Concertina music for this episode by Steven Arntson, Lobo Loco and David Coffin. The PEMcast is generously supported by The George S. Parker fund.

Stay tuned for Part 2 as we explore the relationship between sea chanties and the environment. We will introduce to you a current maritime exhibition at PEM, as well as one coming up this summer, plus our new climate and environment initiative. Thanks for listening.