May-June 2007

San Pedro Shanty Sing

By Audrey Coleman

On a warm spring evening, you're strolling down West Seventh Street in San Pedro, headed towards the Whale and Ale. Friends have recommended the traditional British restaurant-pub and you are looking forward to the beef Wellington and for dessert, that uniquely delectable "sticky toffee pudding." Approaching, you can see the Victoriana furnishings and oak paneled walls through the thick, green-paned picture window. Then you hear something between a song and a chant emanating from the open second story window.

Leader: Oh, poor old Reuben Ranzo!
Chorus: Ranzo, boys, Ranzo!
Leader:  Oh, Ranzo was no sailor!
Chorus: Ranzo, boys, Ranzo!
Leader:  He was a Boston tailor!
Chorus: Ranzo, boys, Ranzo!

San Pedro Shanty Sing
Alan Rice on the concertina and Geoff Agifim on banjo are among
the "regulars" at the monthlySan Pedro Shanty Sing.

The voices belong to the San Pedro Shanty Sing, whose participants meet monthly at the Whale and Ale to pay tribute to a form of work song as old as seafaring itself. Many of the twenty or so shanty fans who gather around the long wooden dinner table in the restaurant's cozy upstairs meeting room are volunteers with the Los Angeles Maritime Institute. They sail "tall ship" sail boats for youth training programs run by the Institute. For them, learning the songs that powered the labor on the 19th century clipper ships has become an extension of learning to sail the ships themselves.

     One of the founding members of San Pedro Shanty Sing, Alan Rice, recalled, "My girlfriend Joan and I had started sailing on the tall ships with kids. We became wrapped up in tall ships and sailing, so we went to San Francisco where they have the Maritime Museum on the wharf and vessels in the water. While we were there, we heard people singing and learned that they had a monthly shanty sing out there. We had so much fun doing that that we started going monthly for their first Saturday of the month shanty sing. So we did this for a couple of years."

Eventually, other volunteers with the Maritime Institute agreed with Alan and Joan that Southern California needed its own shanty sing. After a first meeting at the Institute, they were able to get a commitment from the Whale and Ale to reserve the meeting room for the last Friday evening of the month. "We realized that we wanted to potentially draw more people and, heaven help us all, we'd like a pint of beer to go with the songs," said Alan. "And that just wasn't the right thing to bring to the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, not an excellent example for the young people who sail on our boats and do our programs.

The San Pedro Shanty Sing is into its sixth year. San Francisco's group recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. All over the country and throughout the world, lovers of sea shanties gather in groups like these and at sea music festivals to experience songs once linked to labor. Now they are a source of entertainment.

But whence the shanty?

Ted Gioia, author of Work Songs, cites a model of an ancient Egyptian boat, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, that shows a harpist and singer facing the rowers, very likely urging them on their task with music. We know much more about the British and American shanties that reached the peak of their flowering during the 19th century. Only by mid-century, according to Gioia, did the word shanty enter the general vocabulary, often thought to be derived from the French word chanter which means "to sing." First-hand accounts such as Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast and multiple versions of shanties printed for the public give us an idea of how the songs were used and how they proliferated.

By the 19th century, shanties had become highly specialized, linked to the types of shipboard labor they accompanied. For example, "Reuben Ranzo," the shanty shown above, was a halyard or long-drag song sung while raising or lowering sails. During this type of shanty, the crew would haul during the chorus and pause during the verse. Short-drag or short-haul shanties were used for easier tasks such as unfurling the sails. Capstan or windlass songs with their many verses were used for the most demanding of tasks, heaving the anchor.

The success of a shanty in spurring the sailors to coordinate their movements and apply the right amount of strength at the right time rested largely with the leader, the shanty singer. It could be his robust voice and vocal flourishes that kept the group focused on the task but it could also be his ability to improvise on verses, often to the mirth of the sailors that unified and entertained at the same time.

Another aspect of the shanty tradition was the multicultural crew that the tall ships attracted during the 19th century, spicing the British and American shanties with a variety of influences. In addition to the British folksongs and ballads that provided the foundation of many shanty melodies, the powerful call and response tradition based in African and African-American vocal music contributed to its form. Africans from the West Indies and African Americans were frequent shanty leaders as were Irishmen. Shanty scholar W. Jeffrey Bolster contends that "the period of the shanty's greatest development after 1820 was one of black prominence at sea... (so that) by the 19th century, white sailors spent a significant amount of time singing in what had once been a characteristically black style."

Sailing the seas of the world, shanty singers were exposed to everything from boatman's songs of the Burmese seafarers to Polynesian work songs known as tangi used to attract fish. In fact, one of these songs used by the Hawaiian (Kanaka) sailors probably inspired the shanty "John Kanaka:"

Leader: I heard, I heard the old man say.

Chorus: John Kanaka-naka too-lye-ay.

Leader: We'll work tomorrer but no work terday.

Chorus: John Kanaka-naka too-lye-ay

Ted Gioia speculates that the borrowing across linguistic barriers led to frequent use of nonsense syllables such as "way-ay-ay" and "do-a-day" - a practice similar to the scat singing of the jazz tradition.

What is beyond speculation is that songs traveled with their sailors, spawning many a version of the same song and numerous spin-offs of popular themes and motifs. One song that began with British sailors praising the Mexican general Santa Anna on "the plains of Mexico" ended up in the Brunswick nearly a hundred years later replacing the general with a damsel named "Sandy Anna" and moving the setting to Georgia.

Leader: Seaman, what's the madda?

Chorus: Hooray, Sandy Anna.

Leader:  Seaman stole my dolla's

Chorus: Hooray'oray

Leader: He spent it in Havana

Chorus: Hooray'oray...

Although the days when a sea shanty migrated from ship to ship in true folk tradition, the San Pedro Shanty Sing group has experienced a contemporary version of the folk process. Alan Rice recalled, "One of the things that Joan and I  noticed - We were also going back to Mystic each summer - so we were hearing songs in Mystic and hearing songs in San Francisco and then coming here with an occasional guest. There were, in fact, regional differences in how the songs were sung. These little enclaves - in San Francisco they'd sing a song one way and we'd come down here and start singing it that way and somebody who'd learned it from a different tape, a different version, would sing it differently. We have a lot of books that tell us where the songs come from but it's been fun to actually hear variations happening now.

"Somebody came through, he was aboard a visiting ship and while it was here, he came and joined our shanty sing. So he sang a song that none of us had heard before--Essequibo River. So I learned that from him just the ways he sings it which is almost kind of a roaring, shouting kind of belting style. We all started singing it that way because that's how we thought it was sung. So then we learned that other people sing it very, very differently. But we have no intention of changing it. That's how we learned it from our visitor and we're going to keep singing it that way. So there was an example of a very locally learned song."

If you're looking for a very local shanty sing experience, the San Pedro Shanty Sing group meets the last Friday of the month at the Whale and Ale on West Seventh Street. If you arrive at the official start time, you'll find a chair at the table and friendly people who will let you look at their shanty books so you can sing along. No singing background required. Added attractions are Alan's pennywhistle and concertina, Jeff's banjo, Kim's collection of flutes, and Dustin and Lindsay's robust baritone voices. When the table fills up, more chairs are set up around the room. And the Guinness flows freely till about 10:30 p.m.