Ferry and Folk Songs: Traditional Music Encounters at Sea

The lyrics of this shanty reflect the experience of crew members aboard small vessels that could navigate shallow shoals and ports, but were otherwise vulnerable in high seas. It is one of many that evokes an imagined maritime past.

Performers today bring shanties and other sea songs into their repertoires alongside folk, rock, and western classical music. Their styles vary, but they typically feature smooth, pop-style vocal timbre and carefully worked out harmony.

Sailors’ Chanteys

Sailors’ chanteys were songs sung during work. They had to be sung in short bursts of energy, so they were often hummed or whistled through. Examples include short drag shanties (for hauling), capstan shanties (windlass), pumping shanties, and whaling shanties. A sailor’s job and the task at hand determined which song was sung. Some shanties were written just for the ship, such as Old Maui and Spanish Ladies, while others were more popular on land, like Fo’c’sle and Forebitters.

These songs were sometimes coarse, reflecting the raucous working life of sailors in the Age of Sail. The Victorians tidied them up, creating the gentler versions known to schoolchildren today. Many of these songs have survived to the present day, including Diane’s, which carries on their salty, maritime spirit with a contemporary feel.

Diane specializes in early and late maritime folk ballads of the British Isles, and she has recorded several of them. She also writes new shanties in the traditional manner, using the old styles as a model. She believes that the continuing conflation of pirate songs with sailors’ sea chanteys does a disservice to both sides of the complex sailing world.

Forecastle Songs

With their rhythmic melodies and compelling narratives, naval songs are a vibrant and enduring part of maritime culture. They illuminate the hardships and hopes of a sailor’s life and reflect the universal themes of adventure and struggle that are found in folk music. The resurgence of interest in maritime folk songs has brought new audiences to the rich heritage of this genre.

During his first Forecastle headlining appearance, Jack Harlow was met with an enormous crowd eager to see their hometown hero. The Kentucky native kept the energy going with song after song, many from his newest album which had just been released three weeks prior to his performance. While a few fans were disappointed that Harlow didn’t play some of the deeper cuts they are familiar with, the majority of the audience loved every minute of his set.

This year, Louisville Public Media’s 40 Days of Forecastle series will feature ten different sets from headliners and co-headliners alike, each one with their own unique approach to music and storytelling. From local favorites to national mega-stars, there is something for everyone at Forecastle 2021. To get you in the mood for these diverse shows, we have compiled a playlist of ten songs by Forecastle headliners, from deep cuts to their most famous hits.

Maritime Singers

The songs sailors sang to keep themselves entertained and motivated during long voyages acted as a bridge between crew members and across boundaries of rank, nationality, religion, age and experience. They also served to help the men remember their home and families while ensuring the success of the voyage. Maritime singers, often called shantymen, continue to carry on this tradition in modern times.

In the past, shanties were seldom sung outside work contexts, but today many performers straddle both leisure and professional maritime music genres. Some perform exclusively as a form of folk or popular music, while others integrate chanteys into broader repertoires of work and play, and still others take on the challenge of interpreting the songs for an audience that has not traveled with them to sea.

One of the best collections of chanteys to date is Gale Huntington’s Song of the Sea (1956). This new reprint by Mystic Seaport contains original songs as well as songs compiled from a number of sources, including logbooks, journals and newspapers. The collection reflects the rich diversity of musical styles used in chanteys, including Western classical in Mary Jane Lamond’s Suas e!, Cape Breton and Middle Eastern influences in Laurel MacDonald’s Chroma, and traditional American maritime harmonies in Rick Spencer’s Songs of the Salt Water. Each songwriter adds his or her own personal interpretation to these songs that are as old as the sea and the sailors who sung them.

Maritime Festivals

Maritime festivals bring together local maritime organizations, historians and preservationists to showcase their knowledge and skills for the public. Visitors can explore exhibits, learn from the experts and enjoy traditional music that evokes a past time and place.

Coastal communities host annual maritime festivals to raise awareness about the importance of their town’s seafaring heritage. In Greenport, the Maritime Festival celebrates its town’s long maritime history by offering a wide range of activities. Its boat and ship exhibit is a major attraction. From classic sailing ships to cutting-edge yachts, visitors can interact with boat owners and learn about each vessel’s specific history.

The festival also features maritime dance, a cannon battle, craft-making and rigging demonstrations. A musical lineup features instrumental and vocal performers of traditional maritime music, including singers of sea chanteys. The event is free and open to the public.

The event culminates with the Grand Gig Parade, a community parade down Main Street in downtown Greenport. The parade includes more than 150 floats, cars and trucks. Other events during the weekend include a craft show, a fish fry and dueling pianos.