Boats in Cornwall

Songs of the sea – the Cornish sea shanty

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Cornwall is a great place to catch some traditional sea shanty singing, thanks to the combination of our sea-faring tradition, and our cultural love of singing. Recently, sea shanties have enjoyed a revival, with listeners of all ages appreciating the skilled harmonies, moving melodies, and storytelling lyrics.

“Shanty” probably derives from the French “chanter”, to sing. Sea shanties originated on board ship to keep the sailors working to a rhythm. Because of this function, many shanties have a leader (“chantyman”) shouting out and a chorus responding. However, there was more to a shanty than keeping a working rhythm going – it was also a way of keeping the men entertained during repetitive and hard labour, and quite often the themes are rather subversive. There were specific shanties for certain tasks (capstan shanties, halyard shanties, pumping shanties), all with different rhythms and of different lengths. There were also “time off” shanties, which often told stories.

These days, the shanty is more at home in the pub than on board a ship. In 2003, singers Falmouth Shout started a shanty festival – which is definitely worth visiting if you’re in Cornwall at the right time.

The annual Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival runs from Friday 17th June until Sunday 19th June. The three-day event raises money for the wonderful RNLI, a charity close to our hearts here in Cornwall. This year’s festival promises over 50 groups in 20 venues, a total of over 300 hours of free music. Catch the famous Fishermen’s Friends, and a whole host of other fantastic groups including Kimber’s Men (as seen on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch). At the time of writing this blog, the final bill of groups was still being confirmed – but with over 50 acts lined up, there’s definitely going to be plenty of shanties!

Venues range from the pubs to the church, and there will also be plenty of outdoor entertainment (including lots of street food). There’s also a pop-up festival-within-a festival from TOSTA, which celebrates our links with other sea-faring communities. There’ll be shanties in the Cornish, Basque, Welsh, Frisian, Scots and Irish Gaelic languages, and you can hear them on the Prince of Wales Pier across the weekend.

If you’re not able to go to the Festival, but like the idea of hearing a shanty or two down a Cornish pub, where should you go? On Monday evenings, pop down to one of The Cornwall’s local towns, Mevagissey, where members of the Mevagissey Male Voice Choir sing shanties for their supper in The Fountain Inn. Further afield, try the Cadgwith Cove Inn (location self-explanatory) on a Friday night, when the wonderful Cadgwith Singers perform.

The Fisherman’s Friends, a group of fishermen, lifeboatmen and coastguards who’ve been friends since childhood, are probably Britain’s best-known shanty singers. The group signed to Universal Music in 2010, and is regularly seen on television and at music events, but they still perform on the Platt in Port Isaac throughout the summer – check their Facebook page for updates.

If you want to find out more about sea shanties, Falmouth Shout’s website has some fascinating information. To check our availability for the Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival, please contact us. We’re also more than happy to advise you on good local venues for Cornish music – and we have been known to have a choir or two at The Cornwall…

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