Sea shanties have been around for a very long time. Some have been traced as far back as the 15th century – well before the “Golden Age” of piracy, which lasted from roughly the mid-17th to the mid-18th centuries.  Does this mean that pirates sang sea shanties?
Pirates did sing shanties. They were common among sailors at the time, and pirates would likely have learned them from other sailors or been former sailors themselves. Several shanties also refer to famous pirates by name, suggesting the songs were popular among some pirate crew.
This article will describe the purpose and origins of sea shanties and list a few examples of the most famous songs.
The Purpose Sea Shanties Served
Sea shanties are a genre of work songs that sailors sang as they worked. They were popular among sailors between the 14th and 19th centuries – an era when large sailing vessels dominated the seas.
As ships got bigger and more complex in the early modern era, seamen needed to coordinate complex maneuvers. Manipulating a sizable square-rigged sail, for instance, needed many men to make well-calibrated and synchronized adjustments together.
Bigger ships also required plenty of tedious labor for proper maintenance. They had vast decks that had to be frequently swabbed and large crews who needed to be fed regularly.
The rhythms of shanties followed a call-and-response format whereby a “shantyman” would sing lead verses drawing out the crew’s chorus. These rhythms helped sailors keep time as they coordinated complex movements. 
Shanties also helped diverse groups of young men, often from different cultures or of varying ethnicities, bond and keep their spirits up during grueling voyages when they spent many months away from home.
Notably, there were specific shanties for each type of job, as they were each performed to different rhythms.
Short drag or capstan shanties were sung along to tasks that involved regular bursts of heavy pulling, such as drawing bowlines, windlasses, or anchors. By contrast, the more rambling and rhythmically varied halyard shanties accompanied more complicated tasks, such as hoisting sails, whose execution responded to immediate environmental conditions. 
For the same reasons, shanties were sung by crew members and not officers or captains. They were especially popular on the large 19th-century whaling ships that supplied the whale oil that lit many cities at the time and the baleen that went into the manufacture of all kinds of goods, including ladies’ corsets.
The introduction of steamships toward the end of the 19th century dramatically altered the rhythms of working life on the seas. With this, the sea shanty began to go into decline. Today it is primarily a nostalgic celebration of forgotten folk cultures, though there has been a resurgence in popularity in the 2020s.
The Origins of Sea Shanties
Sailing ships were often melting pots where people from many different cultures came together. In addition, sea shanties first developed hundreds of years ago. Finally, the folk who sang them were often among the poorest citizens of their nations, who had no social capital and literature of their own.
All these factors make tracing the roots of the sea shanty difficult. However, a few clues hidden in the forms of music themselves do offer hints as to the possible origin or origins of the genre.
The call-response structure of sea shanties suggests an African origin for the form. That black sailors have served on European and American crews for nearly five centuries, and possibly longer, makes this highly likely.
Other sources suggest that the form might have arisen from the interaction of black and white sailors on boats sailing down the Mississippi river during the French occupation of the Americas. The word shanty, is, after all, said to be based on the French chanter for singing.
Still others have located Irish melodies in many of the most famous sea shanties and noted that some of the busiest trans-Atlantic shipping routes connected Irish-dense cities like New York and Liverpool.
Of course, it is also possible that shanties are a hybrid form that evolved over the centuries and took inspiration from each of these cultures.
A Few Famous Sea Shanties
It is hard to know how many sea shanties have been sung over the centuries by sailors in different corners of the world. Shanties also varied from region to region and activity to activity. For instance, specific songs were sung on Antipodean whaling boats, pirate ships in the Caribbean, and North American riverboats.
The most well-known of shanties – 15 Men on a Dead Man’s Chest – is, in fact, entirely fictional. It was invented by the author Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure story Treasure Island and is famous for its chorus, which goes: “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.”
Here are a few other well-known shanties that sailors have sung through the years.
The Ballad of William Kidd
This was one of the few shanties explicitly about a famous Golden Age pirate, the eponymous William Kidd. The song chronicles the events leading up to his execution in 1701, celebrating his life as a “wicked” pirate and lamenting his death, which it feels is unjust. 
Now enjoying a resurgence after going viral on TikTok, this song has been traced to 19th-century whaling vessels in New Zealand. The “Wellerman” of the title is an employee of the Weller Brothers whaling company that was based out of Sydney, Australia. There are many references to whaling throughout the song.
What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor
A fun ditty, the song ponders what to do with a drunken sailor, with the crew offering a host of creative responses to the shantyman’s leading verses. Their suggestions include shaving his belly and hosing him down. Its melody bears a striking resemblance to the traditional Irish folk song Óró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.
Leave Her, Johnny
Not strictly a shanty, in that it was not sung while working, but on approaching home, with work completed, Leave her, Johnny has an unusually tender melody. The “her” of the song’s title refers to the sailor’s ship, life on which was often back-breakingly hard, and “Johnny” was a common term for sailors in Liverpool.