Sea shanties (singular “shanty”, also spelled “chantey”; derived from the French word “chanter”, ‘to sing’) were shipboard working songs. An American and British phenomenon (some Continental countries frowned on singing at sea), shanties flourished from at least the fifteenth century through the days of steam ships in the first half of the 20th century. Most surviving shanties date from the nineteenth and (less commonly) eighteenth centuries.
In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: people tuned into the same rhythm can work ‘in phase’, as it were. They also helped alleviate boredom and give vent to the hard working conditions typical of the day.
Most shanties are “call and response” songs, with one voice (the shantyman) singing the line and the chorus of sailors bellowing the response.