Best Sea Shanty Songs

Looking for some top sea shanty songs? Well, this list of old and new hits will surely scratch that itch.

“Drunken Sailor” by Irish Rovers

Song Year: 2005

Originally written in the 19th century (or possibly before), “Drunken Sailor” is easily one of the most famous sea shanties. Lyrics can range widely between versions but typically focus on options to either punish the sailor in question or find some way to help him sober up.

The Irish Rovers’ version is one of the most iconic takes on the song, adding in a level of instrument work to make it more distinctive than a voice-only shanty (as it was sung prior).

“Wellerman” by Nathan Evans

Song Year: 2021

An instant smash hit when the internet noticed Nathan Evans’ version of this 18th-century recreational song, “Wellerman” is another whale-hunting shanty. It has since received a near-uncountable number of covers, with artists rearranging it in into different styles and themes.

More than anything else, though, Wellerman is a testament to how much power a time-tested song can have if released in the right place.

“Blood Red Roses” by Rod Stewart

Song Year: 2048

The focal track on an album with the same name, “Blood Red Roses” mixes violins and tambourines to the bass and drum lines for a lively tune. Like most sea shanty songs, the lyrics feature a frequently-repeating chorus and story told in the rest.

The song’s focus is a ship’s journey hunting down a whale, following the introduction of the vessel and the captain. The song doesn’t tell how the story ends, but that’s common enough in shanties.

“You Can’t Hold a Good Man Down” by The Pirateers

Song Year: 2014

An impressively catchy modern shanty, “You Can’t Hold A Good Man Down” tells the tale of a pirate constantly getting into dangerous situations, from nasty storms to attacks by naval vessels.

The central theme of the lyrics is surviving disasters at sea and coming back to continue on, which touches at the heart of feelings many sailors have while out at sea. The ocean is far more dangerous than the land, after all.

“Song of the Vikings” by Perly i Lotry

Song Year: 2021

As the title suggests, this is a Viking-themed shanty, which is a little unusual because the genre typically focuses on British sailors and pirates. Like most of the best songs in this genre, though, it works outstandingly well with no instrumentals and only the deep voices of the singers giving the song its life.

Timing and harmony are key parts of shanties. You can hear that on full display in Lotry’s song when he’s joined by the other singers.

“Leave Her, Johnny” by The Longest Johns

Song Year: 2013

Originally a 19th-century shanty, the famed band The Longest Johns redid this classic for use in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, a video game featuring piracy as a central element of its theme and gameplay. The band also did a community version where more than 500 people participated, showing how easy it is to sing shanties en masse.

The lyrics vary by version, but the shanty focuses on the singers encouraging each other to leave their ship behind. Tradition holds that this shanty was only sung on the last day of a trip before the crew disembarked, indicating the voyage was truly done.

“Barrett’s Privateers” by Stan Rogers

Song Year: 1976

Sea shanty songs saw a strong resurgence in the early 2020s, but Stan Rogers’ classic predates this by several decades. It’s also a popular drinking song, and it’s seen used as a theme at numerous universities and with the Royal Canadian Navy.

Although the song’s story is broadly fictional, most of the elements have a basis in details from 18th-century privateering. Shanties often have elements of truth to them, and this one is certainly no exception.

“Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate” by Jerry Bryant and Starboard Mess

Song Year: 2000

A more folk-style song than many other shanties, Jerry Bryant wrote this song to focus on homecoming and how sailors who have bonded during years at sea might not want to let go of their relationships.

This version of the film eventually saw use in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a war drama where a British navy ship sought to hunt down a dangerous French vessel during the war with Napoleon.

“Blow The Man Down” by Ewan MacColl

Song Year: 1956

Originally composed around the 1860s, or perhaps earlier, Ewan MacColl brought some attention back to this by having television star Harry Corbett (who’d achieved fame as one of Britain’s first Method-style actors) sing it for an album.

Like most shanties, the lyrics are flexible and can change with singers. However, the common interpretation of the lyrics is the protagonist being struck after getting tricked into signing on for a ship. Unlike some shanties, though, this song has a relatively cheerful ending through reference to finally arriving at a dock.

“Roll Northumbria” by The Dreadnoughts

Song Year: 2019

“Roll Northumbria” is based on the history of the Esso Northumbria, an oil tanker that completed its construction in early 1970. The ship got decommissioned about twelve years later, following concerns about its design and frequent technical problems.

The story of a modern oil tanker is highly atypical for shanties, which usually focus on the age of sail, but this song specifically shows the versatility of the singing style.

“Lowlands Away” by Nils Brown, Sean Dagher, and Clayton Kennedy

Song Year: 2014

Another shanty worked on for Assassin’s Creed 4, “Lowlands Away” is a somewhat haunting song about a sailor dreaming of the passing of his wife. When sailors might be away for years at sea, it’s all too easy for them to lose track of the people in their lives.

“The Cruel Wars” by The Dreadnoughts

Song Year: 2011

The Dreadnoughts are one of the more notable shanty-singing bands in modern times, and “The Cruel Wars” stands out as an unusual variation of the basic style. The song focuses on two parts of a story, starting with the ruin of a boy recruited as a soldier and moving on to a couple in Germany.

The overall theme of the lyrics is broadly anti-war, noting how the events of the song can happen to almost anyone called up to battles. This song also highlights the distinction between the shanties focused on soldiers and sailors, and those sung more often by pirates and privateers.

“Roll The Old Chariot” by Nathan Evans

Song Year: 2022

A more modern shanty than many others on this list, Nathan Evans’ song focuses on hanging on while at sea. This is a common element of oceanic travel, where journeys are planned out, and there’s no easy way to just go home regardless of your situation.

As a counterpoint for the focus in the chorus, though, Evans uses his verses to focus on things that sailors might want to do while holding on to their journey. Whether the trip is good or bad, taking time to relax can be important.

“Haul Away Joe” by Unknown

Song Year: 2018

This shanty is known to date back to at least 188, and it’s speculated to have started the rounds on British ships well before 1812. It’s also a practical shanty, used to coordinate timing and hauling a ship’s foresheet. The lyrics can be improvised as necessary, telling the crew to keep going until the sheet is tight enough.

While the original author is unknown, The Longest Johns performed a modern version of this tune and brought it back to public notice.

“Seaman’s Hymn” by A.L. Lloyd

“Seaman’s Hymn” by A.L. Lloyd

Song Year: 1973

First written for a BBC radio program, “Seaman’s Hymn” is used today as a closing song for events, especially shanty jams where singers get together to perform and debut new works. It’s relatively short for a shanty but easy to sing in a group. It also features a simple rhyme structure in the second and fourth lines of every verse, making it easy to expand as necessary.

“Kittyman” by Trailer Park Boys

Song Year: 2021

Sea shanties have never been shy about borrowing music from other songs. While it’s debatable whether those shanties count as parodies, this riff on “Wellerman” clearly does.

Although not likely to be sung on a ship in serious situations, “Kittyman” demonstrates the flexibility of the shanty rhyming and storytelling structure. The entire genre values improvisation and creativity, so “Kittyman” is on this list to demonstrate what you can do with shanty music.

“Ring Ding (A Scotsman’s Story)” by Nathan Evans

Song Year: 2021

A fast-paced shanty, “Ring Ding” starts out sounding much like more of a love song and may take a little practice to sing in a group. However, its storytelling structure matches other shanties well, telling of a foolish young man and offering a warning to the listener.

The timing also works well onboard many ships, with a repeating refrain that can serve as an indicator to prepare and verbal cues to act just after.

“Santiana” by The Longest Johns

Song Year: 2018

Thought to date back to the 1850s, “Santiana” is a fictionalized account of Antonio de Santa Anna, a general in Mexico who fought against Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American war. The popular lyrics of the song aren’t historically accurate, as they imply Mexican victories in battles that the US had won instead.

The overall structure is a call-and-response, with the crew alternating between two lyrics while their caller can improvise as many lyrics as necessary. “Santiana” is a frequently-modified song, but many old variations never got written down and are now lost.

“Spanish Ladies” by Unknown

Song Year: 2014

While the exact origin of “Spanish Ladies” is unknown, ships’ logs suggest it was first written around 1793-1796 and was forgotten until the 1840 novel Poor Jack popularized it again. Notably, that makes this easily one of the oldest songs on our list.

The lyrics tell of British soldiers ordered to return to England, leaving their Spanish spouses and children behind, and of their passing by specific landmarks. Although probably not a working song when originally written, it may have been used as a mnemonic device to help sailors measure and understand their progress across the English Channel.

“Hard On The Beach Oar” by Dillon Bustin

Song Year: 1998

An unusual inland shanty, Dillon Bustin wrote “Hard On The Beach Oar” by combining some music he heard on the White River with information from recent travel logs and novels. The song focuses on the Ohio River, which required heavy pulling for ships trying to get upriver at the time.

Although not originally sung by sailors, some likely took it up for their journeys.

“Fiddler’s Green” by Marc Gunn

Song Year: 2008

Part shanty and part Irish drinking song, “Fiddler’s Green” tells the story of a mythical seaman’s paradise, full of drinks and places to go fishing. In folklore, it was a place set apart for sailors who’d spent at least fifty years at sea. For all practical purposes, that meant their entire lives.

“Good Ship Venus” by Sex Pistols

Song Year: 1979

While the Sex Pistols have the most famous version of the song, the origin is thought to be older, possibly based on the loss of a real-life ship called the Venus around 1806.

The song version is a mix of shanty and drinking songs, getting increasingly lewd as it goes on. Most verses follow a limerick structure but occasionally depart from that instead of trying to stick too close to the perfect meter.

“Cape Cod Girls” by Bounding Main

Song Year: 2005

Also known as the Codfish Shanty, “Cape Cod Girls” is another shanty of unknown origin. The suspected creation is a North American sailor on the way to Australia, and it’s been largely sanitized from its original form.

This is a working song, so it heavily features the call-and-response design characteristic of sea shanty songs.

“Coast of High Barbary” by Joseph Arthur

Song Year: 2006

“Coast of High Barbary” is a flexible song, working as both a ballad and a shanty. Modern versions, like those of Joseph Arthur, occasionally focus on rock elements. Like many other shanties, many variations exist. However, the lyrics traditionally focus on the story of a sailing ship that encountered some pirates, then left them to drown for their crimes.

“Haul Boys Haul” by Johnny Collins

Song Year: 1998

“Haul Boys Haul” is a widely popular shanty, with versions from a great many performers. However, Collins’ version is widely considered one of the best, and the traditional lyrics focus on the life and occasional regrets of someone who chose life at sea.

“Lowlands Low” by Unknown

Song Year: 2021

Thought to come from the 19th century, “Lowlands Low” is a long-drag shanty used to help hoist a topsail. The music is thought to come from a comedic opera originally released in 1762, showing just how long some tunes can stay around.

“Magellan’s Expedition” by Alestorm

Song Year: 2022

Nobody does pirate music quite as thoroughly as Alestorm. While they’re best known for rock songs, they regularly dip into shanties as well, and “Magellan’s Expedition” is easily one of their best in this regard.

Top Sea Shanty Songs, Final Thoughts

Sea shanty songs often have startling staying power. Though not as famous as many pop songs, many shanties have been around for hundreds of years, and some are based on lyrics or tunes even older than that. They’re among the best songs for singing in groups, too, which makes them a great option for karaoke and parties.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *