Although the sea-shanty is a form of work-song and the latter is a
universal phenomenon in one form or another, the 'shanty is never
ascribed any origins from the African continent. For whatever reasons,
the various versions of the beginnings of the shanty point to many a
geographical birthplace - except Africa. In fact it is not until
African slaves were forcibly removed from their homelands that they got
involved with work-songs of the sea. Two main areas included the West
Indies. On adoption of the English language, that of their 'owners',
many West Indian shanties appeared which survived the slaves'
emancipation. The other main area was the United States where Africans
developed work-songs in their version of English, which were later to
form part of the Blues originating in the Deep South.
Singing as they work, is a custom that sailors must have practiced since
time immemorial. The first reference to a shanty seems to be in the
fifteenth century, according to Hugill. But generally speaking, shanties
don't seem to have been well-established until the end of the 18th
century and became more widespread in the 1830's, when "... reference to
shanties and shantying entered literature," (1). The earliest reference
in print might well be "On the voyage to Jamaica in the 'Edward
Merchantman', in the year 1811," (2) as Hugill supposes; on this
occasion. On arrival, the crew vacated and left the unloading to black
workers who "... beguiled the time by one of them singing one line of an
English song, or a prose sentence at the end of which all the rest join
in a short chorus." (3). Although such a description could easily fit
black work-songs in the Southern states, generally, the verses quoted
are very much in the shanty idiom and not discernibly, in print, black
or negroid. Of course as time went by, this situation changed and many
shanties, even in print, are obviously sung by blacks, even if the
lyrics originated elsewhere.
The point being that how they sang shanties might have vestigial African
influences but what they sang came from other cultures. How
these shanties came into contact with the Blues, I will cover in an
exploration of the possible routes of oral transmission and some
influences from broadside ballads, music hall, as well as black work
songs. Many of the concepts of the latter found their way into the Blues
via the sea shanty. Concepts, such as "if the sea/ocean was whisky and I
was a duck", and "I got a girl six (up to ten!) feet tall, sleeps in the
kitchen with her feet in the hall", were alien to the tribes of West
Africa from whence the great majority of U.S. slaves originated. These
and other verses will be considered in depth in chapter III while the
imagery of an extravagant burial, after a life of poverty and
deprivation by digging the grave with a silver spade, seems to have
British origins. This image and the idea of lowering the coffin with a
golden chain was to appear in many shanties (or different versions of a
few) and inspired the Blues singer, especially in Texas. Because of its
obvious popularity, this phenomenon warrants a chapter of its own.
Other sources for the
shanties have been claimed as Latin-American countries, folk songs from
Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, amongst others. Under the
heading, 'Afro-American origins' Hugill lists "Plantation songs from the
Mississippi and Deep South. Negro work-songs in general, from the Gulf
Ports. Cotton Hoosiers' chants (Negro and White), Minstrel songs." (4).
He also includes work-songs from the American railroads. But while
cotton-hoosiers' chants, work-songs from the Gulf ports and elsewhere,
etc. could have remnants from Africa in their make-up, via
socio-cultural connections and musicological ones, the lyrics emanated
from U.S. soil - or they appear to. Certainly, by the time the U.S.
blacks' work-song had evolved, along with the 'field hollers' from
slavery days, into an idiom recognisable as blues, many of the lyrics
were influenced and adapted from British song sources. "Negro sailors
were never particular where they get their tunes from. The hymns of
evangelists like Sankey and Moody were just as suitable for their
purposes as music hall songs" (5). As with tunes, so often it was with
lyrics. One of these song sources and the way that verses transmitted
cross-culturally, I contend, is the sea shanty. This 'lyric-influence'
therefore, via the shanty, becomes another important non-African root of
the Blues; as I intend to show.
© Copyright 1991 Max Haymes.
All Rights Reserved.
||Hugill S. p.6.
||Baker R. & Miall A.
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