I love hearing my best friend, Cate, tell me stories of her time in elementary school. Cate went to a school unlike most others. They milked goats, made elderberry ink, and learned sea shanties and folk songs. Here are some of my favorites that she has introduced me to, in addition to more we have discovered.
“Retirement Song” by The Longest Johns
This is a contemporary sea shanty. The acapella song tells the story of a man who decides to retire from life on the sea because all he needs in life is to spend time with his wife. This is an absolute banger. There is something about the chorus that repeats many times throughout the song, the clapping, and the harmonies. As someone who doesn’t love the idea of marrying a man, this song makes me kind of warm up to the idea. If my husband isn’t as devoted to me as the character is to his wife, I don’t want him.
“Ghosts of Cape Horn” by Golden lightfoot
When my friend first told me the title of this song, I had to ask “What did you say?” Honestly, my unfortunate misunderstanding of the title is a large part of why I initially liked the shanty. But with further listening, it is beautiful, and I am a sucker for songs that employ multiple time signatures.
“The chemical worker’s song” by ron angel
This is a necessary listen for anyone who wants to call themselves a comrade. Like the title suggests, this song rallies together chemical workers in their plight in their work: “I work and breathe among the fumes that trail across the sky/There’s thunder all around me and there’s poison in the air/There’s a lousy smell that smacks of hell and dust all in my hair.” Cate and I recommend Great Big Sea’s interpretation of this song. There is Reddit discourse about whether or not this song is a shanty, with the current conclusion being that it is shanty adjacent.
“Óró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile”
This is a beautiful, traditional Irish song. The modern version of this Irish independence song is about the Easter Rebellion, an armed insurrection against British rule. This is the perfect song for studying if you easily get distracted by lyrics (that is, as long as you don’t speak Irish).
“Powerful Man” by Alex G
This is a beautiful, contemporary folk song that regularly brings me to tears. It explores themes of family, friendship, love, and masculinity, and employs acoustic guitar and violin. This song is great for both belting in the car or with headphones in a dimly lit room. I also highly recommend Phoebe Bridgers’s cover of it.
I never would have thought to be someone who would enjoy shanties and folk music, but there is a reason why these songs stand the test of time. They brought people together, and they continue to do so. They have shown me how fun it can be to branch out in what I listen to. I recommend setting aside any fear of genre whiplash and sprinkling some of these in your fall playlist.