Last weekend, I spent a very merry, slightly tipsy few days at the International Sea Shanty Festival in Falmouth.
International What, now? Allow me to explain.
Every year, Falmouth town hosts a three-day festival of nautical songs and chants, to which people flock not only from all over Cornwall, but from foreign parts too – Ireland, Brittany, England, even America. Every B&B, campsite and hotel is full to the brim with shantymen (and, increasingly, some shantywomen!), and the streets swarm with be-smocked musicians and the occasional pirate. Nearly every pub (of which Falmouth has a very generous range) becomes a venue for the various shanty bands, who also play on street corners, outside shops and in the public squares.
Each hour, a venue’s lineup changes, and you’ll see canvas smocks in Breton red, navy blue and stripes scurrying from one establishment to another as they get ready to set up for their next gig. Every year, I make elaborate plans to switch venue every hour to see all the bands I want to see, but inevitably the beer in one pub ends up being unusually good, and a seat becomes vacant, and 7 hours later you find that somehow you’re still in the same venue and 7 different bands have floated on and off stage before your eyes, whilst old-timers have come and shared your table and had a natter about… well, everything under the sun. Which is all very much in the spirit of the festival.
So what is a shanty?
Most people think the name ‘shanty’ comes from the French ‘chanter’ (to sing). Although there’s some debate about this, what’s definite is that a shanty is a traditional form of song sung by sailors, which aims to reflect the rhythm of the work on deck (hauling halyards, pulling the anchor, setting jibs, winding a capstain). Often, a lead shantyman will give the ‘call’ and then the other crew will give the ‘response’ (short, sharp calls and responses for the jobs requiring bursts of energy; longer, more lyrical ones for the slower jobs). Working shanties often feature the nature of the work itself as the main theme – ‘Haul Away Joe’, ‘Wey, hey, blow the man down!’ – but for those lonely evenings or periods of comparative calm, there are the wistful shanties which recall the shore and all its comforts – ‘Spanish Ladies’, ‘Maggie May’ – and remind the young sailors of their sweethearts left behind (often including a not-so-veiled warning about what said sweethearts are most likely getting up to with other boys whilst their sailors are at sea).
Who sings shanties nowadays?
There are plenty of shanty bands around the country – and the world. This weekend alone, I saw bands from Falmouth, Treverva, Salisbury (not a lot of sea in Salisbury, but there you go), Brittany, Exmouth, Holland, Poland, Yorkshire, and plenty more places. Some are professional groups with regular gigs of their own, whilst others are more casual affairs – people who just love to shant!
What’s all this got to do with language?
I’m glad you asked. The thing is that although shanties get sung in all sorts of languages and dialects, you never, ever feel left out by not understanding the words. Turn up to one of the Breton bands and (unless you speak Breton or Cornish), you probably won’t have a clue what the words mean, but you’ll definitely understand the spirit of it, and before long you’ll find yourself singing along to the chorus, arm in arm with everyone else. In part, this is because shanties are very repetitive by nature, so it’s easy to pick up on lyrics and sing along.
All of which makes me think that singing has got to be a great way to pick up a new language – and any type of song will do! Nursery rhymes, pop songs, national anthems, folk songs, poems, choral music, raps; it all helps, it really does. I still remember all the Zulu words to ‘Siyahamba’, which Safia and I learned over just a few days (video evidence below). And even if you don’t know exactly what all the words mean to begin with, it’s a huge encouragement to be able to fluently reel off a couple of sentences in your new language, all learned through song.
…Way, Haul Away,
We’ll Haul Away, Joe!