Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Chanteyman Tunes Up Again: Schooner Days DXCIX (599)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 17 Jul 1943
Full Text
Chanteyman Tunes Up Again
Schooner Days DXCIX (599)

by C. H. J. Snider


EFFORTS are being made to preserve the chanteys and songs of the Great Lakes which belonged to the age of sail. The Cleveland public library is active in this, and properly so, for Cleveland sent out the barquentine Eureka, the only lake vessel, so far as is known, to participate in the California gold rush of the Fortyniners, and she had to go around Cape Korn to get there. She did both, a credit to Cleveland shipping. We have already mentioned the exploits of the Cleveland brig or brigantine J. G. Deshler, and other little lake vessels which went overseas from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario eighty years ago. Cleveland was then a great schooner port, and its public library is doing good service in collecting the chanteys.

This is rather a thankless task for the chanteys have little merit as literary compositions and their historical value, while great, is not always apparent on the surface. The understanding heart sees a chapter or a page in life's history in each rude ballad, but those who read to avoid thinking are just bored.

The compiler's task is not made easier by the horde of historians who write about the Great Lakes as though they were realtors commissioned to sell them with or without riparian rights, and who quote fragments of chanteys without giving their source or background.

Chanteys are popular, not from their literary or historical content, but because they all have beautiful old tunes which have ambled down the ages unruffled by the verbal company they keep. The tunes attract because they are the survival of the fittest to survive, the quintessence distilled from thousands and thousands of song flavors. All chantey tunes, like most ballad music, are borrowed from something older, perhaps better, perhaps forgotten.

If we extend chanteys to cover folk songs I would say that the best chanteys now in use—or the best folk songs—are the product of the hard present life of the Newfoundland fishermen. There is true folk poetry in these, full of local allusion, pathos and humor, and they have a vitality or present-day imprint which makes them unique.

It would not be surprising to hear to-morrow in Newfoundland a song on the blowing up of the Caribou last autumn. It would be set to some old Irish or Devonshire tune and would be packed with local and unpublished detail, such as who was chewing spruce gum when the explosion occurred and how much a victim's funeral cost.

THE writer's experience of chanteys has been limited to the songs of men in lake schooners fromoners from 1890 onwards; black boatmen in British Guiana twenty years ago; Nova Scotian fishermen; Lunenburg riggers (Paul Myra had a repertoire of one hundred; a few Newfoundlanders, with the accent on the land, please; John Goss and his London singers; and the Shellbacks Club.

Chanteys are the product of the merchant marine. "Haul the Bowline," said to be the oldest, goes back to the days of carracks and galleons, perhaps as far as the Viking ships, when the bowline was a rope which helped haul the concave weather edge of the old square sails flat. In the sailing navy the rope's end and rattan unhappily took the place the chantey occupied in the merchantman and the songs which Dibden and others wrote were not sung while at work, but more often in the precarious shelter of homes ashore or waterfront taverns.

The word chantey has been in use for a long time, but the writer never saw it in print until Kipling wrote the "Last Chantey." At the end of the Victorian era it was still counted so slangy that it was not to be found in Webster.

True chanteys, that is, labor cries worked into rhythm and rhyme, were used extensively in lake schooners, besides the come-all-ye's and songs which are now considered chanteys but were really lake ballads, like the "Red Iron Ore," "Cruise of the Bigler," "The Schooner Persia's Crew," "The Jenny P. King," and so on.

Here is a sample, from memory, of Capt. Johnny Williams' exhorting his crew as they hove the Van Straubenzie around the hard corner of the Waterworks dock fifty years ago:

"With a high hoop!

"Weigh! Heigh!

"With a high hoop!

"Weigh! Heigh!

"With a high hoop!

"Young fellows!

"Strong backs!

"With a high hoop!

"Now grandma!

"Heave and bust 'er!

"With a high hoop!

And so on, by the hour, for it was a long hard job. Not unlike another chantey hundreds of years older, quoted below.

Hunting for the derivation of the word in France (from chanter, to sing) is as wide of the mark as guessing that in India when they went to move a shanty the foreman sat on the roof and sang a shanty song for the encouragement of the workers below. Shanty is not an Indian word. It's Irish, Seantig, old house, cradle of the come-all-ye.

By accident the word chanting was used a few sentences back. It seems, reasonable that sailors, who evolved "ditty" bags, "tiddley" ties, and "dipsy" leads, would call their humble efforts at chants "chanteys " That does not get over the hurdle that the word is always pronounced as though started with an S.

Indeed, that is the way it is spelled in some books offering, collections of "Sea Songs and Shanties." The chantey was not a sea song, but a sea labor chant. The sea song might even be used as a chantey, or contain chantey calls, but they are things apart.

Many sea songs are beautiful old ballads, some brought from the land like Shenandoah, a pure product of the old American frontier on the Missouri, others bred on brine, like Spanish Ladies; these are not chanteys at all, although given as such. Heilan' Laddie makes a good hoisting chantey, though you, mightn't guess it. You should hear John Goss and his London singers at it! The effect upon the topsail halliards remains to be learned.

This brings up the origin of the chantey. Schooner Days thinks it was rhythm used to lighten labor, the simplest form being a cry such as "Ho!" or "Heave!" uttered at appropriate intervals. This is still the practice on construction work, and it was in lake schooners as long as they lasted.

In the last war the writer watched fishermen launching their boats on the English Channel beach at Hastings, dragging them across the shingle. One old boy with his shoulders under the stern Would groan "A-haul-a," the lads ahead would strain, and the boat would go a few feet nearer to the water. The groan was rather musical; the stress falling on the middle syllable, and it combined the efforts of six men, none of whom could have budged the boat working alone.This rhythm early developed rhyme, with words being used along with the grunts and groans or cries. Thus in the Complaynt of Scotland, a literary composition many centuries old, we have the "marinals" as they are called, chanting:


"Hips bare!

"Yellow hair!



"Ane and all

"Haul! Haul!



And so on.

The "Heisa!" in the cry may be the rhymed description of the early marinal or of his waterfront wench, the decoration or flavoring of the peptalk. The "Heisa!" corresponds to the "With a high hoop" or "A-haul-a" of other chanteys quoted. Perhaps chanteys had to be expurgated even then; but we must remember that as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so evil is often in the mind of the listener.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
17 Jul 1943
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ohio, United States
    Latitude: 41.4995 Longitude: -81.69541
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Chanteyman Tunes Up Again: Schooner Days DXCIX (599)