Music Director of Northwest Seaport
SEA CHANTEYS, OR SHANTIES, WERE historically sung as a way to pass the time between difficult jobs aboard ships, often involving the coordinated efforts and labor of several workers. Wayne Palsson, music director of Northwest Seaport, was initially drawn to chantey sings by way of his interest and study in maritime history and restoration. Today, he helps to lead and coordinate chantey events, including chantey workshops, festivals, and a three-hour maritime showcase. “When we sing these chanteys, we literally sing history, because so many of these songs are 200 years or more in age, and we’re keeping that maritime tradition alive,” said Palsson.
Sea: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of sea chanteys?
Palsson: It kind of goes back to when the sailing world, or the oceans, were dominated exclusively by wind-powered ships. Back in the 1700s, 1800s, early 1900s, chanteys were work songs that were used to coordinate the work aboard ships. When you had to raise the sail or pump the bilges — any of the heavy lifting or monotonous work — it was much better done by singing a song, and the call-and-response nature of the true chanteys are exactly that. There are slight variations in how the chanteys go, and it was all designed to get the work done in coordinated fashion. So it’s really a great euphemism for demonstrating teamwork. These were the work songs, and that’s what a chantey was. Shanty or chantey — they both mean the same thing. There are arguments about how the name arose. I tend to use chantey. Shanty might be a little bit more American. What’s interesting is that it’s fun to sing, it’s easy to sing. Someone will lead the song and sing out the verse, and most people in the audience will respond with the chorus. People just love to do it. We average about 70 people a month to our event.
What kinds of songs are these?
Back then, there were other songs that were sung for fun and for leisure, and we would call them forebitters. What’s interesting about the foredeck is that it’s as far away as possible from the officers as possible, so that’s where the sailors would sing those songs. Those were often ballads or popular songs from shore. They were typically never sea chanteys, because sea chanteys reminded them of work, so there’s a whole other class of maritime songs that are called forebitters or leisure songs, and some of those were called broadsides. People would write songs and announce them with broadsides, which were basically leaflets or posters, that were pinned around town and it would encourage people to go buy the sheet music and play these songs. Some of those songs were written by landlubbers about the sea. They might not have been accurate about the maritime experience. We sing those songs and I say we sing history but there are people writing maritime songs and sea chanteys about today’s maritime experiences. It’s pretty dynamic. There’s a contest every year in Puget Sound, they’ll pick a maritime theme and people write songs.
What drew you to singing chanteys?
The public, most of the people who come are not singers, but they’re in this venue where they’re at least joining in on the chorus. About 10 or 12 years ago, I came to a chantey sing and I’d already been interested in maritime history and maritime restoration, and I sat in and I couldn’t help but start singing. I started learning the songs and I guess I’ve been musical, singing-wise, some light opera, but this really got me going. I started learning songs and leading songs, and eventually I took over the hosting and organization of the chantey itself and the concert series, which is more of an occasional event.
What are chantey workshops?
I co-manage a three-hour maritime showcase. I’ll have a chantey workshop another day, and [in a workshop] I’ll talk more about what the different chanteys are, and I go more into the background of each song and how it was used aboard ships. But this year, I’m going to structure the workshop differently, kind of getting people used to singing chanteys in a chantey sing or in a public venue. I’m going to start out with very simple songs, like rowing songs, and then I’ll build that up with several-note chorus and that will be used for doing heavier lifting, next we’re going to take you to haul up the anchor, on the old ships they’d walk around the capstan to haul up the anchor and they’d have a series of monotonous songs that work out pretty well today, so we’ll talk about those, and we’ll break it into more of the songs that were forebitters, used for leisure. One thing that I’ve done in the last few years, I’ve sung some of the more popular songs and I’ll hand out verses to the audience. Most of them have never sung in public before, but they’ll take a verse and sing it, then the next person will go. Some of the capstan chanteys, they have the long song and that works out great for them.
What about chanteys outside of the PNW?
In San Francisco, they have a monthly chantey sing and other maritime concerts. We have visiting maritime concerts, but most sea chanteys are free. There are artists out there, and probably the most popular one is Gordon Bach. Tom Lewis used to be a British submariner, and he wrote and performed for a long time in Canada and the United States. In San Francisco, there’s a chantey ranger, Peter Kasin, and he organizes the big chantey sing on the ferry boat. People do sing pop songs about the sea. There’s a band called A Great Big Sea from Newfoundland. They’ve taken traditional sea chanteys and amped them up with electric guitars.
Can you tell us about the sea chantey events at Northwest Seaport?
We do ours every second Friday of the month. We don’t have a fixed venue but we’re usually on the same vessels. We’ll be in the Museum of History and Industry this coming month in May 8. I’ll invite a local person who’s proficient in singing chanteys and I’ll have them lead the event. I’ll take one chantey sing, and what I do is have everybody in the room asking to sing a song to request a song or to simply pass if they don’t know a song. I usually do that in December. For diversity, I’ll bring in a different chantey leader each month and they’ll typically do the first one or two songs, and then they open it up for anyone in the audience to stand up and belt out a song. Then the leaders, or someone else, will keep going. I’ll sing a song or they’ll sing a song.