Stan Hugill,
Shanties from the Seven Seas
(1961; Mystic Seaport Museum, 1994)

If you have any fascination for the work songs of the sea, Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas should be your bible.

Hugill was no deskbound scholar researching a topic through second- and third-hand resources. He was a sailor and a shantyman, making his living from the ocean as long as his kind of worker was still needed. But as machines replaced men on many of a ship's backbreaking tasks, the need for rhythmic shanties to unite the men's labors and lift their spirits were no longer needed. Fortunately, Hugill did his best to preserve the old songs and their histories, and this volume is a true labor of love.

Shanties from the Seven Seas was originally published in England in 1961. It went through several printings, with corrections and abridgements along the way, before being picked up by a new publisher in the late 1980s and seeing its first U.S. release. Now, the Mystic Seaport Museum has re-issued the book and, given the Connecticut museum's interest in preserving nautical history and lore, will hopefully keep it in print.

Hugill, who died in 1992 at age 86, is remembered in this new edition as "a singer, raconteur, amateur anthologist, armchair philologist, self-taught artist, and boon companion." He worked hard at sea during peace and war, survived two shipwrecks, was a German prisoner of war, retired into a new career as a boatswain and sailing instructor for Outward Bound, and was the person most responsible for preserving and reviving the shantyman's art.

"To the seamen of America, Britain, and northern Europe a shanty was as much a part of the equipment as a sheath-knife and pannikin," Hugill wrote in his introduction to this volume. "Shanties were always associated with work -- and a rigid tabu held against singing them ashore. ... To sing a shanty when there was no heaving or hauling would be courting trouble -- and the sailing-ship man was superstitious to a degree."

The 42-page introduction, titled "The Art of the Shantyman," is worth the cover price alone for anyone interested in the history, development and practical applications of shanties, as well as the various historical efforts to trace their roots. Afterwards, the book is packed with lyrics, including variations, and exhaustive details of the songs' distinct uses at sea. The notes are printed for anyone who wants to play or sing the tunes, and Hugill also provided illustrations showing seamen singing at their work.

Although the material is sometimes a trifle dry, Hugill's casual approach to his topic and his narrative style of writing keep it interesting to read and evoke a certain sadness for a way of life long gone. Shanties from the Seven Seas is a fascinating treasure and valuable resource for singers of songs from the sea.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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