Rolling the waves with Seán Dagher:
How a video game propelled sea shanties into the 21st century
By Luisa Trisi
Sea shanties are having a moment in 2021, but the genre dates back to at least the 17th century and has long enjoyed a worldwide following. What’s behind the #seashanties trend and what does it have to do with video gaming and the current pandemic? Seán Dagher, artistic co-director of Montreal period ensemble La Nef and beloved Canadian shantyman, helps us chart a course back to the deep roots of this nautical tradition. He chats about his decades-long efforts to bring these songs to life without losing their authenticity, and the reasons why they resonate so deeply with modern listeners.
Though we have all experienced many strange and surreal moments during the global pandemic, it’s unlikely that a worldwide #seashanty revival was on anyone’s bingo card. Along with Dr. Anthony Fauci bobblehead dolls and Bernie Sanders’ mittens, sea shanties — the rugged call-and-response work songs sung by sailors of yore — have taken off as a viral trend. Thanks to a TikTok video posted by Nathan Evans, the young Scottish postal-worker-turned-internet star, the sea shanty has been crowned the soundtrack of 2021 and has entered the consciousness of millions of people who have never set foot on a rowboat, let alone an 18th-century whaling vessel.
Long before the sea shanty revival took the internet by storm, Montreal musician and artistic co-director of La Nef, Seán Dagher, was plumbing the depths of this nautical genre and bringing it to the ears of an eager audience. For more than 25 years, shanties have been a regular part of Dagher’s set list for his weekly gig at Hurley’s Irish pub. "When a song can quiet two dozen drunks, you can be confident that there is something there that's worth listening to," says Dagher. “I realized right away that any song that had a response component for the audience was a big hit. People loved those songs and I started using them as anchors (no pun intended) around which to build the rest of the show. Since then, I've used shanties as much as possible when I need to bring people together.”
Sea shanties can be traced back to at least 1680 — just a few years before baroque composer Henry Purcell wrote his famous anthem “They that go down to the sea in ships.” Set to Biblical verses from Psalm 107 and scored for alto, bass, two violins, and continuo, the solemn work commemorates the rescue of King Charles II from a shipwreck.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.
In stark contrast to Purcell’s royal tribute, sea shanties were weather-beaten work songs meant to synchronize the rhythm and lessen the drudgery of specific chores like rope pulling, water hauling, and anchor raising. “There are sea shanties for helping with the various tasks associated with sailing, but railroad building also used shanties,” says Dagher. “The songs are structured around a shantyman calling out verse lines, which are always different, and a crew singing responses, which stay the same for the whole song. Usually there are two shantyman lines per verse with two or three crew refrains. There is sometimes a full chorus that everyone sings.”
With wry and often dark humour, sea shanty lyrics speak of howling winds and stormy weather, drunken adventures, loneliness, and a yearning for better times. Besides coordinating work rhythms, shanties were a way for mariners to rally and express solidarity against feelings of loss, powerlessness, and the brutal hardships of life at sea. “Many of the songs are unkind about the captain or other figures of authority. I think it must have been cathartic for the crew,” says Dagher.
One of the best-known shanties, “Leave her Johnny,” describes the harsh conditions of life aboard the tall ships:
I hate to sail on this rotten tub,
No grog allowed and rotten grub.
The cook’s a drunk and the mate is, too,
And the crew is fourteen men too few.
We’d be better off in a nice clean jail,
With smuggled-in whores, and smuggled-in ale.
We swear by rote for want of more,
The voyage is done so we’ll go on shore.
Leave her, Johnny, leave her,
Oh! leave her Johnny, leave her,
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
And it’s time for us to leave her.
It’s no coincidence that shanties have tapped into the current pandemic zeitgeist. They resonate deeply at this particular moment in time, when many of us are craving connection while living under a dark cloud of anxiety, isolation, and disruption.
Dagher believes that the recent swell of shanty fans has been growing since at least 2012, thanks to Assassin’s Creed, one of the best-selling video gaming franchises of all time. He and a band of six musicians worked with developers at Ubisoft to create the memorable soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed III, followed by Black Flag in 2013, and Rogue in 2014. “Gamers of all ages from all over the world heard these songs for the first time, and a lot of them fell in love with the style. So I think we have to give people credit for being open to new music when they encounter it. The movie Oh Brother, where art thou? did the same thing for Old Time music a few years ago, and Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy” popularized a capella singing when it came out in 1988.”
The success of Assassin’s Creed games and the huge popularity of their soundtracks convinced La Nef to bring the group together again for a live concert in November 2014. Capstand shanties, halyard shanties, laments, forecastle songs, and short haul shanties were arranged for a chorus of seven male voices, along with cittern, violin, flute, double bass, and percussion. The concert was nominated for three Opus Awards (Quebec’s music industry awards), winning Creation of the Year for the song “Leave her Johnny.”
La Nef’s concert program became the basis for Sea Songs & Shanties, the 2017 ATMA Classique recording with Nelson Carter, David Gossage, Andrew Horton, Nils Brown, Michiel Schrey, and Clayton Kennedy. The “randy and rugged” release (The Wholenote) sold out in three months and La Nef toured the popular show to early and traditional music festivals internationally and across Canada.
“It was no small challenge to drag these pieces, tar-stained and tattered, into a concert hall and onto a recording,” says Dagher. “We hope to have retained what is essential to them, their character and appeal. What is certain is that we put our backs into making this music and into singing it.”
Eight months into the global pandemic, Dagher was looking for a way to connect with audiences despite there being no possibility of live performance. He turned to his YouTube channel and began a regular series called “Shanty of the Week,” complete with lyrics, maps, and backstories. With more than 7,500 subscribers, the series has clearly struck a chord. His adoring and loyal YouTube fans fiercely defend him against questionable comments — about the authenticity of his mustache, for example. One fan even thanked Dagher for the transformative, life-changing power of his shanty renditions.
“The response has been really nice, and thousands of people watch the videos,” says Dagher modestly. “What strikes me the most is the comments I get from people telling me that the music is helping them through a hard time. That's pretty moving. All in all, I feel like there is a community of people and we're all it in together, which is really nice. My efforts will have been successful if you find yourself humming these tunes in the coming days, or if you find yourself wishing there were a gang of sailors around to sing them with.”