The Music of the Waters: A Collection of Sea Shanties (1888)

We don’t know much about Laura Alexandrine Smith, except that she lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, where her father was Russian vice-consul, and that she was — as evidenced by this wonderful collection of sea shanties and their surrounding culture — an exemplary ethnomusicologist. As a writer, she was clearly interested in the anthropological aspects of musical genres (her second book looked at Gypsy music) and here in The Music of the Waters her focus is on the song-bellowing sailor, whether a Nile boatman, Venetian gondolier, Indian rower, or Dutch herring-fisher.

With its roots in a series of articles commissioned by The Shipping World, Smith subsequently grew the book out into a delightfully rich compilation — for each song collected there's a musical score, lyrics, alternative versions and translations, as well as the songs history, contextual background, and the activity that the song was designed to accompany. She also includes, as the final chapter, a section on superstitions and legends relating to seas, rivers, and lakes.

It is a delightful mix of rich literary scholarship and, what we might now call, immersive research. “She has personally gone”, as R. M. Ballantyne (author of copious maritime adventure tales for children) says in his Introductory Note, “straight to the 'fo'c'sle,' and interviewed the sailors not only of her own, but of other lands, and thus has gathered from the men's own lips, and from their manly voices, the words and melodies which are most popular among them.” Of particular note for Ballantyne was Smith’s willingness to “beard the lion in his den”, in interviewing the denizens of this mainly masculine, and extremely harsh, work environment. Not that the shanties were exclusively male — alongside “Whiskey Johnny”, “Blow the Man Down”, and “Married to a Mermaid”, Smith’s collection includes Russian and Gaelic chants sung by women as they crushed the grain on the wharf, previous to loading the vessels with it.

Work is, of course, a dominant theme throughout the book and its songs, and it is worth reminding ourselves that seas shanties differ markedly from sea songs in this respect, as a recent JSTOR Daily piece highlights. Smith concurs. For her it is rhythm which is central to the shanty and its relationship to work. While they might accompany a wide range of different activities — including hauling, capstan work, and pumping — rhythm is central to all of them, so as to coordinate the labour of groups. She specifies, “here is the true singing of the deep sea — it is not recreation, it is an essential part of the work”.

Below you can browse other collections of maritime working songs, none so comprehensive or as international in reach as Smith's, but certainly worth a browse and maybe a sing.

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