• Music

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

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.

  • 1

    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.”

      A yo-ho sea song for you?
    • 2

      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.

        A yo-ho sea song for you?
      • 3


        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?
        • 4

          Blow The Man Down

          Video: YouTube

          The title of “Blow the Man Down” refers to a captain of a Black Baller ship using his whip to knock down one of his crew members. Black Ballers were a group of fast-sailing passenger-line ships that sailed back and forth from New York and Liverpool. Since the service banked on speed, the faster the ship went, the better - and so many sailors fell under the whip of their captain’s hand.

          The following verse hints at some of the brutality the crew suffered: 

          But when th' Black Baller gets clear o' th' land.
          W-ay! Hey? Blow th' man down!
          It's then as ye'll hear th' sharp word o' command.
          Give us th' time an' we'll blow th' man down!

            A yo-ho sea song for you?