Music
52 voters

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

Updated January 13, 2021 183 votes 52 voters 85.4k 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.

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    Drunken Sailor

    Drunken Sailor
    Video: YouTube

    Perhaps one of the most well-known shanties, this song is also known as “Drunken Whaler” or “What Should We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” The song was typically sung by large crews - they would perform ship tasks, such as hoisting the sails, in sync with the rhythm of the song.

    As the song’s title suggests, it offers a variety of creative ways to deal with a drunken sailor, such as shaving “his belly with a rusty razor” and putting “him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him.”

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      Leave Her, Johnny

      Leave Her, Johnny
      Video: YouTube

      The "her" in question in “Leave Her, Johnny” isn’t a woman, but a ship. This song was usually sung at the end of a voyage after a ship had docked at the port. While sailors were undoubtedly thrilled to be back on land after a long and back-breaking voyage, this song shows the affection sailors develop for their temporary home.

      While the melody is soft and sentimental, lyrics like, “Leave her, Johnny, leave her! There's many a worser we've sailed in” and “On a leakin' ship an' a rotten, harping crew” don’t romanticize a sailor’s life at sea.

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        Rolling Down To Old Maui

        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.

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          Fish In The Sea

          Fish In The Sea
          Video: YouTube

          Apart from being an annoying platitude we tell people after a breakup, “Fish in the Sea” is also a snappy fisherman’s shanty with its origins in Scotland. The song was a capstan shanty, a song that was song to the rhythm of long, repetitive ship tasks.

          It begins as follows: “Come all you young sailormen, listen to me / I'll sing you a song of the fish in the sea, and it's / Windy weather boys, stormy weather, boys / When the wind blows we're all together, boys.”

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