Sea shanties

It is, Good Lord, a sad time for the skipper of an old sailing ship
His eyes are tired from watching for the slightest breeze
It’s the pea soup fog which has just fallen, that drenches this fine veteran of Cape Horne,
Go ashore with your sea bag and your pay on the quay of mists.[1]

We must say that they are a bit on the sad side, the sea shanties, so we bring them up to date so that they are more cheerful. It’s a funny show that you have been able to see all the same, it has rather cheerful people who make the others sing, you see!

They are a group which sings the sea shanties of the sailors of a bygone time. There is Herve from the group Cafe Noir and from the show Sound of the Swell with Jean-Michel, Valery, Jean-Yves, Joel and Yann.

Sea shanties belong to a cultural tradition. With its hundreds of kilometres of coast line, France is partly a country of sailors, of fishermen, of explorers of the seas, of fearless soldiers.

Let’s drink a cup, let’s make that two,
To the health of lovers,
To the health of the King of France,
And shit for the King of England,
Who has declared war on us.

The sea attracts adventurers and also inspires composers and poets. There is a song using the words of the poem by Baudelaire [2] ‘Free Man, always you will cherish the sea!’.

Free man, always you will cherish the sea
The sea is your mirror, you contemplate your soul
In the infinite expanse of its swell
Your spirit is not a less bitter gulf.

You are pleased to dive into the heart of your own image;
You embrace it with your eyes and arms, and your heart
Is amused sometimes by its own murmuring
At the sound of its invincible and wild groans.

The two of you are dark and discrete;
Man, nothing has plumbed the bottom of your depths;
O sea, nothing knows your intimate richness,
As you are jealous to keep your secrets!

However we see innumerable centuries
When you fight with neither pity nor remorse,
So dearly do you love destruction and death,
O eternal combatants, o implacable brothers!

Charles Baudelaire [2]

So, there it is. There are poetic descriptions and also quite a historical legacy from the old navy of sailing ships.

It is especially linked to the navy of sailing ships, since it was linked to all these songs. There are several types of songs: songs from the foredeck, songs to hoist [the sails], songs to heave which are linked then to manoeuvres [of the ship]. You know “Long live the windlass”, so that was the time when you had to heave round the windlass to get the sails raised, right! It was hard.

Be firm lads, Heave the windlass
Good by farewell! Good bye farewell!
Be firm lads, Farewell Bordeaux!
Hurray! O Mexico! Ho! Ho! Ho!

To Cape Horn, it will be warm!
Haul away! Haul away home!
To go fishing for the sperm whale
Hail sailor! Heave! Ho! Hoist ’em! Ho!

Well there you are, it’s linked to that. The songs of the foredeck are more poetical songs related to the sailors once the effort is over. They used to get together and so there is more poetry. In the end, poetry of questionable taste, a little bit, well, laddish; that is a way of putting it.

Often there are allusions between, if you like, for example, I don’t have any examples at hand, but taken together there are always allusions to the technology of the sea linked to a story with a woman, you see.

For example in [3]:
The pretty girls of La Rochelle,
Doo-dah, Doo-dah,
They go off, wind behind,
Oh doo-dah-day.

What is “going off, wind behind”? Well it an allusion that the girl let herself go with a sailor, you see.

For me a pirate, glory matters little to me
The laws of the world and death matter little too
On the ocean I have sown my victory
And drink my wine in a golden cup.

To live orgies is my only hope
The only happiness that I have known is conquest
It was on the waves that I spent my childhood
It is on the waves that a pirate must die.

Wine which sparkles, fair lady
Under your kisses burning with love
Pleasure, battles, long live the crook,
I drink, I sing and I kill, one by one.

It is truly a popular tradition which has enabled these songs to survive over time.

We can say that it started in the eighteenth century until, I was about to say the end of the navy at the beginning of the twentieth century. This tradition had drifted around like that, but, it is difficult to date the songs. It’s difficult. It’s… since they were not written, so it’s an oral tradition, so there are some songs. Moreover the lyrics vary from one place to another, from one set to another. We can say that it was spread over two centuries. I don’t know any longer, who wrote them at any given time, but we cannot really date them. We can say that it was between the eighteenth and the twentieth century, you see.

In France, it is notable; the region which gave the largest number of sailors of all types to the country was Brittany.

Finally, it is more a culture from Brittany where there are still a lot of wooden ships, you see. That’s linked more with Brittany. In La Rochelle that is starting to get going with the maritime museum but at the start, well, it was more from Brittany than from La Rochelle.

The show is achieving some success in the old port in La Rochelle, right in the south of Brittany. Herve Demereau drew up all the production which detains the people passing before the boat where he has installed his orchestra. Is he more or less linked to what he is singing?

Vaguely, because, well I am not from the eighteenth century, nor just after! But let’s say, well look, I live quite close to the port, to the maritime museum. I am from this area. So I have a little bit of this minor culture, let’s say traditional [culture], but in fact it has been lost. It is quite simply a curiosity on my part, like some people like the navy of old, with all its shipping terms, its sayings, etc.

You have heard some pieces [of music] which are linked to a show which is called “Sound of the Swell”. It is the story of two sailors who go off then from Brittany to Africa, and who end up in Africa and who come back later to Brittany. So that’s the theme of the show.

And so it is a sort of stroll through the sea shanties. There are some genuine songs though from the repertoire of songs linked to the sea and to history.

A good stroll in fact, as the show is going on tour all summer in the area and if you are going to be there:

On the 31st, we are going to be at the port fishing festival which takes place every year in La Rochelle, the 31st May. We will also be at the finale of the regatta organised by the Regatta Society. We are going to be also in Charron this summer for the festival of the mussel, you see at the big festivals like that. And then real shows too, we will be playing in the town halls around here. You should follow the information in the newspaper “Sortir de La Rochelle”.

Off you go, everyone on their feet! All ashore!

The sound track of “Sound of the Swell” is available in CD. Write to:


[1] Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1866) French poet of the 19th Century.

[2] Quai de Brumes is the title of a famous film based on the book of Georges Simenon who was associated with the port of La Rochelle which now has a quay named after the book.

[3] Translator’s note – I have taken some liberties with the translation to render it a form familiar to English speaking readers.

$Id: 2003_05_cul.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top