Notes on Sea Chanties in "Two Years Before the Mast"

Recently I re-read Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. with finding references to music and sea chanties in mind. (The book describes a voyage that began in 1834.)  Compared with what I've found in other late 19th century and early 20th century sailor memoirs, there are surprisingly many references to specific songs.  For the benefit of anyone who'd like the "Cliff's Notes" version, here are my notes on where these references appear. Quoted text appears in blue italics, clicking on the blue italic text links to the individual quotations in the context of the chapters in which they appear. They will pop up in a new window (or tab, depending on what browser you are using). Page numbers refer to the April 2009 Signet Classics edition.

If you are cheap or just like to read online you can download a text version of the entire book from Project Gutenberg here, they have two different editions, but note that neither is identical to the Signet Classics edition:

Chapter II, "First Impressions-- Sail Ho!" at page 5. 

The wind was whistling through the rigging, loose ropes flying about; loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given and rapidly executed, and the sailors "singing out" at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains.

The "singing out" described probably refers to the sort of "sing outs" described in "Shanties from the Seven Seas," by Stan Hugill. (1994 Mystic Seaport Museum reprint at pages 394-402.)


Chapter XI, "Flogging-- A Night on Shore-- The State of Things on Board-- San Diego" at page 93 and 97. 

In this chapter, one of the sailors is unjustly flogged by the captain.  The crew, unhappy about this, foregoes singing for amusement on Saturday evening:
After the day's work was done, we went down into the forecastle, and ate our plain supper; but not a word was spoken. It was Saturday night; but there was no song--no "sweethearts and wives." A gloom was over everything. 

Later in the chapter, Dana explains that when a crew is working "with a will" the crew will sing at their work which makes it go on more smoothly.  But because the crew is unhappy about the flogging they do not sing and do not work quickly:
Where things are "done with a will," every one is like a cat aloft: sails are loosed in an instant; each one lays out his strength on his handspike, and the windlass goes briskly round with the loud cry of "Yo heave ho! Heave and pawl! Heave hearty ho!" and the chorus of "Cheerly, men!" cats the anchor.  But with us, at this time, it was all dragging work. No one went aloft beyond his ordinary gait, and the chain came slowly in over the windlass. The mate, between the knight-heads, exhausted all his official rhetoric, in calls of "Heave with a will!"--"Heave hearty, men!--heave hearty!"--"Heave and raise the dead!"--"Heave, and away!" etc., etc.; but it would not do. Nobody broke his back or his hand-spike by his efforts. And when the cat-tackle-fall was strung along, and all hands--cook, steward, and all--laid hold, to cat the anchor, instead of the lively song of "Cheerily, men!" in which all hands join in the chorus, we pulled a long, heavy, silent pull, and--as sailors say a song is as good as ten men--the anchor came to the cat-head pretty slowly. "Give us 'Cheerily!'" said the mate; but there was no "cheerily" for us, and we did without it. The captain walked the quarterdeck, and said not a word. He must have seen the change, but there was nothing which he could notice officially.


Chapter XVII, "San Diego-- A Desertion-- San Pedro Again-- Beating the Coast" at page 111.

At twelve o'clock the Ayacucho [another ship moored near the ship Dana was on] dropped her fore topsail, which was a signal for her sailing. She unmoored and warped down into the bight, from which she got under way. During this operation, her crew were a long time heaving at the windlass, and I listened for nearly an hour to the musical notes of a Sandwich Islander [Hawaiian Islander], called Mahannah, who "sang out" for them. Sailors, when heaving at a windlass, in order that they may heave together, always have one to sing out; which is done in a peculiar, high and long-drawn note, varying with the motion of the windlass. This requires a high voice, strong lungs, and much practice, to be done well. This fellow had a very peculiar, wild sort of note, breaking occasionally into a falsetto. The sailors thought it was too high, and not enough of the boatswain hoarseness about it; but to me it had a great charm.

Dana explains that Ayacucho was bound to Callao and then on to the Sandwich Islands.  It is described in detail in chapter 9 (page 49) as a 300-ton English-flagged brig built in Guayaquil (in Ecuador), owned and captained by a Scotsman named Wilson.  It was engaged in trade between Callao in Peru, Hawaii, and California, and carried a crew of Hawaiian Islanders.


Chapter XVIII, "Easter Sunday-- 'Sail Ho!'-- Whales-- San Juan-- Romance of Hide-Droghing-- San Diego Again at pages 116 and 122. 

In this chapter, the activities of the crew of an Italian ship are described, they are very musical:
Soon after breakfast, a large boat, filled with men in blue jackets, scarlet caps, and various-colored under-clothes, bound ashore on liberty, left the Italian ship, and passed under our stern, the men singing beautiful Italian boat-songs all the way, in fine, full chorus. Among the songs I recognized the favorite, "O Pescator dell' onda."

There was only one point in which they [the Italians] had the advantage over us, and that was in lightening their labors in the boats by their songs. The Americans are a time and money saving people, but have not yet, as a nation, learned that music may be "turned to account." We pulled the long distances to and from the shore, with our loaded boats, without a word spoken, and with discontented looks, while they not only lightened the labor of rowing, but actually made it pleasant and cheerful, by their music.

"Hultonclint" on YouTube once very cogently pointed out to me that Dana's describing what the Italians were doing as different from what they were doing on the ship Dana was on (the "Pilgrim") says as much about what they were doing on the Pilgrim as it does about the Italians.  The implication of this is that the songs used for working on Dana's ship were less melodic than the songs used by the Italians.


Chapter XX, "Leisure-- News from Home-- "Burning the Water" at pages 144-145.

In this chapter, among other things Dana describes the shoreside musical amusements of the crew of the Pilgrim and the crews of the other ships in the evening.  At this point in the story, many of the sailors were staying in tents on shore near the hide warehouses that belonged to their various shops.
Several of the Italians slept on shore at their hide-house; and there, and at the tent in which the Fazio's crew lived, we had some very good singing almost every evening. The Italians sang a variety of songs--barcarollas, provincial airs, etc.; in several of which I recognized parts of our favorite operas and sentimental songs. They often joined in a song, taking all the different parts; which produced a fine effect, as many of them had good voices, and all seemed to sing with spirit and feeling. One young man, in particular, had a falsetto as clear as a clarionet.

The night before the vessels were ready to sail, all the Europeans united and had an entertainment at the Rosa's hide-house [the hide-house belonging to the Italian ship], and we had songs of every nation and tongue. A German gave us "Och! mein lieber Augustin!" the three Frenchmen roared through the Marseilles Hymn; the English and Scotchmen gave us "Rule Britannia," and "Wha'll be King but Charlie?" the Italians and Spaniards screamed through some national affairs, for which I was none the wiser; and we three Yankees made an attempt at the "Star-spangled Banner." After these national tributes had been paid, the Austrian gave us a very pretty little love-song, and the Frenchmen sang a spirited thing called "Sentinelle! O prenez garde a vous!" and then followed the melange which might have been expected. When I left them, the aguardiente and annisou was pretty well in their heads, and they were all singing and talking at once, and their peculiar national oaths were getting as plenty as pronouns.


Chapter XXIII, "New Ship and Shipmates-- My Watchmate" at pages 165 and 171.

In this chapter, Dana has left the brig Pilgrim and is now on the Alert.  The use of chanties as well as music used for amusement is mentioned in this chapter.
The yards were then trimmed, the anchor weighed, the cat-block hooked on, the fall stretched out, manned by "all hands and the cook," and the anchor brought to the head with "cheerily men!" in full chorus.

About seven o'clock, the mate came down into the steerage, in fine trim for fun, roused the boys out of the berth, turned up the carpenter with his fiddle, sent the steward with lights to put in the between-decks, and set all hands to dancing. The between-decks were high enough to allow of jumping; and being clear, and white, from holystoning, made a fine dancing-hall. Some of the Pilgrim's crew were in the forecastle, and we all turned-to and had a regular sailor's shuffle, till eight bells. The Cape-Cod boy could dance the true fisherman's jig, barefooted, knocking with his heels, and slapping the decks with his bare feet, in time with the music. This was a favorite amusement of the mate's, who always stood at the steerage door, looking on, and if the boys would not dance, he hazed them round with a rope's end, much to the amusement of the men.


Chapter XXIV, "San Diego Again-- A Descent-- Hurried Departure-- A New Shipmate" at page 184.

The great sail bellied out horizontally as though it would lift up the main stay; the blocks rattled and flew about; but the force of machinery was too much for her. "Heave ho! Heave and pawl! Yo, heave, hearty, ho!" and, in time with the song, by the force of twenty strong arms, the windlass came slowly round, pawl after pawl, and the weather clew of the sail was brought down to the waterways.


Chapter XXIX, "Loading for Home-- A Surprise-- Last of an Old Friend-- The Last Hide-- Up Anchor, For Home!-- Homeward Bound" at page 241-242 and 245-246 and 254.

This chapter has more references to chanties, and with greater detail than anywhere else in the book.  It is also here that the process of loading hides is described in detail.  This is significant, because many people believe that many chanties were originally cargo-loading songs that were adapted to shipboard use.
The sailors' songs for capstans and falls are of a peculiar kind, having a chorus at the end of each line. The burden is usually sung by one alone, and, at the chorus, all hands join in,-- and, the louder the noise, the better. With us, the chorus seemed almost to raise the decks of the ship, and might be heard at a great distance ashore. A song is as necessary to sailors as the drum and fife to a soldier. They must pull together as soldiers must step in time, and they can't pull in time, or pull with a will, without it. Many a time, when a thing goes heavy, with one fellow yo-ho-ing, a lively song, like "Heave, to the girls!" "Nancy O!" "Jack Crosstree," "Cheerly, men," &c., has put life and strength into every arm. We found a great difference in the effect of the various songs in driving in the hides. Two or three songs would be tried, one after the other, with no effect,-- not an inch could be got upon the tackles; when a new song, struck up, seemed to hit the humor of the moment, and drove the tackles "two blocks" at once. "Heave round hearty!" "Captain gone ashore!" "Dandy ship and a dandy crew," and the like, might do for common pulls, but on an emergency, when we wanted a heavy, "raise-the-dead pull," which should start the beams of the ship, there was nothing like "Time for us to go!" "Round the corner," "Tally high ho! you know," or "Hurrah! hurrah! my hearty bullies!"

This was the most lively part of our work. A little boating and beach work in the morning; then twenty or thirty men down in a close hold, where we were obliged to sit down and slide about, passing hides, and rowsing about the great steeves, tackles, and dogs, singing out at the falls, and seeing the ship filling up every day. 

Also discussed in this chapter are songs sung for amusement:
Among her crew were two English man-of-war's-men, so that, of course, we soon had music. They sang in the true sailor's style, and the rest of the crew, which was a remarkably musical one, joined in the choruses. They had many of the latest sailor songs, which had not yet got about among our merchantmen, and which they were very choice of. They began soon after we came on board, and kept it up until after two bells, when the second mate came forward and called "the Alerts away!" Battle-songs, drinking-songs, boat-songs, love-songs, and everything else, they seemed to have a complete assortment of, and I was glad to find that "All in the Downs," "Poor Tom Bowline," "The Bay of Biscay," "List, ye Landsmen!" and other classical songs of the sea, still held their places. In addition to these, they had picked up at the theatres and other places a few songs of a little more genteel cast, which they were very proud of; and I shall never forget hearing an old salt, who had broken his voice by hard drinking on shore, and bellowing from the mast-head in a hundred northwesters, singing-- with all manner of ungovernable trills and quavers, in the high notes breaking into a rough falsetto, and in the low ones growling along like the dying away of the boatswain's "All hands ahoy!" down the hatchway-- "O no, we never mention him."

"Perhaps, like me, he struggles with
Each feeling of regret;
But if he's loved as I have loved,
He never can forget!"

The last line he roared out at the top of his voice, breaking each word into half a dozen syllables. This was very popular, and Jack was called upon every night to give them his "sentimental song." No one called for it more loudly than I, for the complete absurdity of the execution, and the sailors' perfect satisfaction in it, were ludicrous beyond measure.

The next day the California began unloading her cargo; and her boats' crews, in coming and going, sang their boat-songs, keeping time with their oars. This they did all day long for several days, until their hides were all discharged, when a gang of them were sent on board the Alert to help us steeve our hides. This was a windfall for us, for they had a set of new songs for the capstan and fall, and ours had got nearly worn out by six weeks' constant use. I have no doubt that this timely re-enforcement of songs hastened our work several days.

The song of the Hawaiian Islanders is briefly described:
Old "Mr. Bingham" and "King Mannini" went down to the boat with me, shook me heartily by the hand, wished us a good voyage, and went back to the oven [a building in which the Hawaiian Islanders lived], chanting one of their deep, monotonous, improvised songs, the burden of which I gathered to be about us and our voyage.

Lastly, the crew does not sing when making a disappointing and embarrassing second attempt to leave the harbor after getting hung up on a sandbar:
In about half an hour, which was near high water, the order was given to man the windlass, and again the anchor was catted; but there was no song, and not a word was said about the last time.


Chapter XXXI, "Bad Prospects-- First Touch of Cape Horn-- Icebergs-- Temperance Ships-- Lying-Up-- Ice-- Difficulty on Board-- Change of Course-- Straits of Magellan" at page 290.

In this chapter, the crew sings happily at their work:
Our spirits returned with having something to do; and when the tackle was manned to bowse the anchor home, notwithstanding the desolation of the scene, we struck up "Cheerly, men!" in full chorus. This pleased the mate, who rubbed his hands and cried out, "That's right, my boys; never say die! That sounds like the old crew!" and the captain came up, on hearing the song, and said to the passenger, within hearing of the man at the wheel, "That sounds like a lively crew. They'll have their song so long as there're enough left for a chorus!"
(Note, some editions of the book give the name of the song as "Cheerily ho!")


Chapter XXXIII, "Cracking On-- Progress Homeward-- A Pleasant Sunday-- A Fine Sight --By-Play" at page 302-302 and 306.

In this chapter, the ship is homeward bound and because the crew are happy, a lot of singing is called for.

"Cheerly Men!" continues to be popular:
When we came to mast-head the topsail yards, with all hands at the halyards, we struck up "Cheerly, men," with a chorus which might have been heard half-way to Staten Land.

Those who are familiar with the C. Fox Smith poem "Towrope Girls" or Tom Lewis' song setting that poem to music will be interested to see that the idea dates back at least to Dana's time:
The captain walked the deck at a rapid stride, looked aloft at the sails, and then to windward; the mate stood in the gangway, rubbing his hands, and talking aloud to the ship, "Hurrah, old bucket! the Boston girls have got hold of the tow-rope!" and the like; and we were on the forecastle, looking to see how the spars stood it, and guessing the rate at which she was going, when the captain called out "Mr. Brown, get up the topmast studding-sail! What she can't carry she may drag!"

At each change of the watch, those coming on deck asked those going below, "How does she go along?" and got, for answer, the rate, and the customary addition, "Aye! and the Boston girls have had hold of the tow-rope all the watch." Every day the sun rose higher in the horizon, and the nights grew shorter; and at coming on deck each morning there was a sensible change in the temperature. The ice, too, began to melt from off the rigging and spars, and, except a little which remained in the tops and round the hounds of the lower masts, was soon gone. As we left the gale behind us, the reefs were shaken out of the topsails, and sail made as fast as she could bear it; and every time all hands were sent to the halyards a song was called for, and we hoisted away with a will.

The book goes on for three more chapters, but that's about it for references to sea chanties and maritime tunes.

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Copyright K. Whisler 2010.