Presenter Information

Henry Strobel, Undergraduate B.S.M.E Music Education

Abstract

Sea shanties have generally been accepted as the main relic of the culture of British sailors: a mythology that permeates the 19th and 20th century describing the harsh, unforgiving and yet in many ways romanticized life at sea. The repertoire of this time was eventually written down and catalogued by folk music collectors such as Cecil J. Sharp, who were hoping to record and preserve the British identity for generations to come. However, in researching the etymology of these songs as well as the first-hand accounts of sailors, there is a significantly greater layer of complexity to this history than it may seem. Many songs that appear in Sharp’s collection, such as the beloved shanty Haul Away Joe, are either reminiscent, or in some cases, directly lifted from labor songs, folk tunes and children’s songs of the Americas and Africa: places to which these sailors may have travelled, but that are not indicative of their British heritage. Through a musicological lens, I will be examining the authenticity of the British shanty, and how a muddled background contributes to a complicated legacy of the true identity of the British sailor. Rather than being truly representative of Britain, the attempt to re-assimilate the culture acquired by British sailors back into the canon of the mainland neglects the pieces of other cultures these sailors acquired.

School

Mary Pappert School of Music

Advisor

Dr. Nicole Vilkner, Ph.D

Submission Type

Paper

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Songs of the Sea and the Sailor: Demystifying the Mythology of British Sailing Culture

Sea shanties have generally been accepted as the main relic of the culture of British sailors: a mythology that permeates the 19th and 20th century describing the harsh, unforgiving and yet in many ways romanticized life at sea. The repertoire of this time was eventually written down and catalogued by folk music collectors such as Cecil J. Sharp, who were hoping to record and preserve the British identity for generations to come. However, in researching the etymology of these songs as well as the first-hand accounts of sailors, there is a significantly greater layer of complexity to this history than it may seem. Many songs that appear in Sharp’s collection, such as the beloved shanty Haul Away Joe, are either reminiscent, or in some cases, directly lifted from labor songs, folk tunes and children’s songs of the Americas and Africa: places to which these sailors may have travelled, but that are not indicative of their British heritage. Through a musicological lens, I will be examining the authenticity of the British shanty, and how a muddled background contributes to a complicated legacy of the true identity of the British sailor. Rather than being truly representative of Britain, the attempt to re-assimilate the culture acquired by British sailors back into the canon of the mainland neglects the pieces of other cultures these sailors acquired.

 

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