First, let’s deal diplomatically with the most sensitive question before us.
Is it “shanty” or “chantey”?
Well, it’s both. Either way, the musical form of a sea shanty or chantey is the same. It’s a call-and-response work song most associated with old maritime vessels powered by manual labor.
Wayne Palsson, music director of Seattle’s NW Seaport Maritime Heritage Center, says he uses both spellings. But his nonprofit organization’s almost 20-year-old monthly “Chantey Sings” choral activity, open to (in fact, made possible by) enthusiastic public participation, made its choice long ago.
Early Music Seattle (EMS), on the other hand, a beloved arts group best known for presenting Baroque, Renaissance and ancient world music, is dipping its toe in seafaring waters with “Sea Shanties on the Skansonia” on Nov. 23 (the deadline for reserving a space is Nov. 18) and “La Nef: Sea Songs and Shanties” the following day.
NW Seaport is lending a hand with the former, a fundraiser for EMS artistic and educational programs. The event takes place on the Skansonia, a retired Washington state ferry built in 1928 and now permanently moored on Lake Union. There will be a traditional fish-and-chips dinner supplied by The Ruins, a cash bar; shanties galore from the extraordinary Montreal-based La Nef singing group; and a shanty singalong led by Strikes a Bell, a vocal outfit that includes Palsson.
The following afternoon at Benaroya Hall, La Nef will present its glorious “Sea Songs and Shanties” program, which has been touring the world by popular demand since 2014. The roots of La Nef’s involvement with maritime music are in, of all things, a pair of popular “Assassin’s Creed” video games. La Nef had a big hand in contributing to the widely praised soundtracks of those games, and adapted their vintage songs to concert performance.
La Nef will demonstrate that not all shanties are the same, just as various jobs on a ship differ in duration and purpose.
“You have different songs for raising and lowering the anchor. Different songs for adjusting sails and all the different tasks involved with tall-ship sailing,” says Seán Dagher, musical director of this La Nef program, as well as singer and cittern player. (A cittern is a Renaissance string instrument.)
La Nef’s concert presents songs from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and the Caribbean, sung by a chorus of seven male voices. A video of the group singing “Leave Her, Johnny” is an arresting preview of what’s in store for the Seattle audience.
All well and good. But who knew there is a thriving sea-shanty community in Seattle?
“It’s the power of voice,” says Palsson, a fisheries biologist. “The ‘Chantey Sings’ nights average 70 people who show up and sing. They know each other. It’s a powerful thing. It keeps people coming back.”
At “Chantey Sings,” untutored singers, even bad ones, are very welcome. You think those brawny guys pulling oars back in the day took vocal lessons?
Palsson traces his own draw to shanty singing, along with other local landlubbers, to the Wawona, a three-masted, fore-and-aft schooner that sailed from 1897 to 1947. The Wawona served as both lumber carrier and fishing vessel based in Puget Sound, and in 1970 it was the first vessel placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Wawona drew a lot of people in the ’70s while it was in Kirkland. People started coming aboard and holding informal concerts and singalongs. The shanty community here grew out of that. Later there were more formal maritime music concerts presented at Folklife Festival. So the Wawona and Folklife were major catalysts.”
NW Seaport owned the Wawona for a while (the schooner was dismantled in 2009). “Chantey Sings” isn’t the group’s only gift to the city. It currently has three vessels, two in constant use for a variety of tours and fun family activities, including a halibut schooner called the Tordenskjold, built in Ballard in 1911, and a tugboat, the Arthur Foss (originally the Wallowa), built in 1889.
The Foss is a Hollywood legend, having starred in the 1933 “Tugboat Annie” with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery.
A typical shanty singalong involves no instruments. A “shantyman” (who can be either gender) stands before the singing group, putting a muscular spin on verses. The group responds with a hearty chorus each time. It’s fun to watch the body language of some “Chantey Sings” singers; they can’t help but clench a fist and swing a crook’d arm before them, as if ready to break into a seaworthy dance.
“They’re singing history,” says Palsson. “Some shanties are 300-years-old, and it’s easy to get caught up in their original energy.”
“You’re sharing an experience with others who are really enthusiastic about the music,” says Betsy Brick, development director for Early Music Guild. Brick started attending the monthly “Chantey Sings,” and loves the camaraderie.
“They’re colorful characters who tend to come to these. People you might not necessarily rub shoulders with at other times. They’re just an interesting group — a culture of their own in Seattle. They come to sea shanties in different ways. Sometimes their relatives have worked on ships, so they have it in their blood. It’s a breath of fresh air to find something I’ve never been exposed to. It breaks down barriers, and is a fun way to let go of your week.”
EMS executive director August Denhard is looking forward to this change of pace from the group’s more scholarly programming. But he sees a clear connection between sea shanties and artistic fare from the same era.
“Shanties are an extension of 17th-century vocal music. It’s call and response, chorus and verse. Composers like Henry Purcell or Italian madrigalists were writing music in forms where there’d be a repeated chorus, and then a verse, often of newer material. Those songs were more sophisticated, and the parts were longer. But shanties are a boiled-down version of that. If you had to be pulling a huge rope, and singing a piece of music at the same time, the song would have to be pretty straightforward.
Some of these songs are little artistic gems when you hear them.”
“Sea Shanties on the Skansonia,” 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23 (reservation deadline is Nov. 18), aboard the MV Skansonia, 205 N.E. Northlake Way, “A” Dock, Seattle, $40; “La Nef: Sea Songs and Shanties,” 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle, $30-$45; 206-325-7066, earlymusicseattle.org