75 voters

12 Famous Sea Songs That Were The 'Hotline Bling' of Pirate Culture

Updated January 13, 2021 257 votes 75 voters 87.7k views12 items

List RulesVote up the sea shanties that've got your toe tappin', matey.

While many people might cite "Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)" as one of their favorite pirate songs, you may be surprised to learn that as seaworthy as the song is, it was never actually sung by pirates. The song was written for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland (though it should be noted that parts of the song are based on a fictional sea song from the book Treasure Island).

Traditional sailor's songs were often more like ballads and told a story, such as the song “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” which recounts the twists and turns in famous pirate William Kidd’s life. Other songs were work songs, or sea shanties, which were sung by the sailors as they performed various ship tasks like hauling ropes or cleaning the deck. These songs were sung in sync with their movements and helped to set a pace and alleviate some of the boredom that came from performing these monotonous tasks day after day. 

Get ready to weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen, because it's time to set sail and sing out.

  • 5

    Rolling Down To Old Maui

    Video: YouTube

    A well-known rowdy shanty, “Rolling Down to Old Maui” was mainly sung by whalers who used to stop in Maui on their way to and from whaling in the Arctic or the Southern Seas. After a lengthy spell at sea, the prospect of warm weather, warm food, and a warm bed companion was something to sing about.

    The last verse of the song illustrates that desire for land more than any other: 

    Once more we sail with the Northerly gale towards our Island home,
    Our mainmast sprung and our whaling done and we ain't got far to roam.
    Our stans'l booms is carried away, what care we for that sound,
    A living gale is after us, thank God we're homeward bound.

      A yo-ho sea song for you?
    • 6

      Spanish Ladies

      Video: YouTube

      This is another shanty that was sung as the anchor was being raised and the sailors were destined for home. Unlike most of the songs listed here, this one is an old naval song and tells the story of British naval officers sailing from Spain to the Downs.

      A fog appears on their route home, making it difficult for them to find their bearings, and yet, as the lyrics suggest, they push forward:

      We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
      We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
      Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
      From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.

        A yo-ho sea song for you?
      • 7


        Video: YouTube

        The New Zealand sea shanty "Wellerman" dates to the 19th century, although its original author is unknown. The titular character, the Wellerman, refers to a supply ship operated by the Weller Brothers whaling company in Australia. The lyrics to "Wellerman" note the plight of the ship, the Billy o' Tea, as they wait for the Wellerman to arrive with much needed sugar, tea, and rum. The survivalist shanty explains how the crew of the Billy o' Tea persisted in its efforts to bring in a harpooned whale, even after the creature dove back under the surface of the sea:

        No line was cut, no whale was freed,
        An' the captain's mind was not on greed!
        But he belonged to the Whaleman's creed
        She took that ship in tow.

        For forty days, the "fight" continued, with the expectation that soon, the Wellerman would arrive, "to encourage the captain, crew and all!"


          A yo-ho sea song for you?
        • 8

          Lowlands Away

          Video: YouTube

          There are several versions of this mournful song, but the two most popular describe either a sailor who dreams of his love and realizes she is dead, or a woman who has a similar dream about her love, who is at sea. In one of the versions, the narrator sings:

          “I dreamed a dream the other night / Lowlands, lowlands, away my John / I saw my love dressed all in white / My lowlands, away.”

            A yo-ho sea song for you?