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

Over 400 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 12 Famous Sea Songs That Were The 'Hotline Bling' of Pirate Culture
Voting Rules
Vote 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
    262 VOTES

    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.”

    262 votes
  • 2
    163 VOTES


    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!"


    163 votes
  • 3
    58 VOTES

    Goodbye Fare You Well

    Goodbye Fare You Well
    Video: YouTube

    Considered one of the most popular homeward-bound shanties, “Goodbye Fare You Well” was sung at port just as the ship was about to set sail for home. While docked, crewmembers on neighboring ships would cheer the crew on, wishing them a safe journey home. The homeward-bound sailors would sing,

    We're home'ard bound across the blue sea,
    Good-bye fare-you-well, we wish you well,
    We're home'ard bound to the old counterie,
    Good-bye fare-you-well, we're home'ard bound!

    58 votes
  • 4
    122 VOTES

    Blow The Man Down

    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!

    122 votes
  • 5
    111 VOTES

    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.

    111 votes
  • 6
    78 VOTES

    Spanish Ladies

    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.

    78 votes