♪ A pirate's life is a wonderful life ♪ ♪ A-rovin' over the sea ♪ - Songs like "A Pirate's Life for Me"- ♪ Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate's life for me ♪ - And "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest" are as prevalent to pirate lore as eye patches or treasure maps.
♪ Fifteen men on a dead man's chest ♪ - We associate these songs with pirates because of Robert Lewis Stevenson's novel "Treasure Island", published more than 100 years after the golden age of piracy.
Stevenson himself actually made up the chorus to "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest".
So what did pirate music actually sound like?
I'm Joel Cook, and this is "Rogue History"!
[dramatic music] Sea shanties are a good place to start when it comes to discussing music on board vessels.
We're not alone in thinking so, since videos tagged #seashanty have gotten over 7 billion plays on TikTok.
On the open sea, shanties helped facilitate the timing and pace of labor, not to mention the songs provided a distraction from the arduous tasks at hand.
- Typically at moments when sailors needed to synchronize their labor to furl or unfurl sails, they needed to work in unison.
For the main sail, you could have a dozen people pulling at one time, so a rhythmic song was actually quite helpful.
♪ Heave away, my Johnny ♪ ♪ Heave away ♪ - The sea shanties we think of today were not documented until the 19th century, when they were mostly sung aboard cargo and whaling vessels.
Although it's worth mentioning that the boundaries between pirates and sailors often overlapped and changed, so it's possible that it occurred without record.
"Blow, Boys, Blow" is a haul yard shanty named after the line they would pull to raise the sail.
The crew would know to pull each time they heard the word blow.
♪ I long to hear you blow, boys, blow ♪ - Aside from some crude sing outs, we don't have physical evidence of work songs being sung on pirate vessels.
A sing out is not an elaborate shanty like "The Weatherman", but more so a simple "yo-ho, heave-ho".
- If we go back a little further, there were early naval traditions in the US, Great Britain, and elsewhere of using drum cadences, sometimes accompanied by fife or fiddle, to set the pace for shipboard work.
This tradition can be found as far back as the Ancient Greek triremes.
Since many pirates were ex-navy sailors, it's possible that they may have also been used aboard some pirate ships.
These cadences would've sound something like this.
[rhythmic fife and drum music] We also have evidence that pirates sang sea songs in hours of relaxation.
They were about romance, adventure, or just variations of popular songs of the era.
♪ Pirates life sounds just right ♪ ♪ Sounds quite nice, I could say that twice ♪ ♪ Sounds quite nice ♪ ♪ We won't live long [yodels] ♪ - We think of pirates lives as constantly exciting, but we have to remember how different the world was back then.
They had to entertain themselves sometimes for days or weeks on end.
- Sometimes music could be used purely for entertainment to keep crews becoming unruly because of boredom at sea.
Pirates actually sometimes kidnapped sailors who they knew could play musical instruments to keep them entertained.
And it was also not uncommon to steal instruments.
- Ballads were one way for seafarers to entertain themselves and share their stories.
One of the most famous examples from the 19th century, "The Flying Cloud", depicts the darker side of a pirate's life.
♪ There's gold and silver to be had ♪ ♪ If with me you'll remain ♪ ♪ We'll hoist the pirate flag aloft ♪ ♪ And scour the Spanish Main ♪ - These were primarily the product of professional songwriters who published popular songs that related to the latest news, written in verse and set to music.
There was a famous pirate in the golden age, Captain Henry Every, who has been accredited with writing a ballot about himself in 1694.
- He led a mutiny off the coast of Spain and he took his crew on a remarkably successful plunder raid in the Indian Ocean.
But before he left Spain, he actually penned his own ballad describing his intentions and he defended his own actions and mutiny at sea.
And the ballad actually made itself up to the highest court in England as evidence of Every's decision to become a pirate.
And the ballad actually got published and became very famous and became actually a very popular song sung by the middle of the 1690s.
- Although Every claimed to have written the ballad himself, some musicologists say that it's very possible that he hired a professional songwriter.
All we have to go off is the lyrics.
The ballad has not been preserved in oral tradition and the tune has been lost.
So just like Hollywood films don't tell a complete version of history, make sure to check out our first episode, neither do these sea shanties and songs.
They don't truly capture how pirate music sounded.
However, in large part thanks to the work of folklorists like Alan Lomax, we can get a rough idea of what they may have sounded like.
Lomax recruited actual sailors to sing these songs, such as this recording of "Haul on the Bowline", sung by Captain Richard Maitland.
♪ Kitty is my darling ♪ ♪ Haul on the bowline, the bowline haul ♪ - These recordings suggests that the songs and the work may have moved at a slower, more measured pace than the brisk, rousing tempo we hear on TikTok today.
But where did shanties originate from?
In his book "Villains of All Nations", Marcus Rediker describes the well-known similarities of form between African songs and sea shanties.
And another book, "Black Salt" by Ray Costello, notes that it's often hard to tell whether in some shanties we are dealing with a European tune that's been Africanized or an African tune that's been slightly Europeanized.
And it's no coincidence that sea shanties bear striking resemblances to songs sung by enslaved people in the Caribbean.
The very practice of shantying, which derives from the French word chanter, or to sing, may have its roots in the interaction of sailors and Black dock workers.
These songs developed at first as songs sung while loading cargo using newly-invented machines, like the cotton screw and the pump break windlass.
These songs' rhythms were designed to match the effort required to operate these machines.
♪ Oh heave away and sing this song ♪ ♪ Storm along, my stormies ♪ - The musical call and response form found in both shanties and African work songs is known as antiphony.
♪ Whoa ♪ ♪ Whoa ♪ - And it makes sense it made its way onto the 19th century merchant ships that also had workers who needed their labor synchronized.
♪ Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down ♪ ♪ [To me!]
Wey hey, blow the man down.
♪ - These crews often had people of many diverse backgrounds who all spoke different languages.
The songs not only brought them together, but it taught everyone certain words and phrases they needed to know to function together as a crew.
- So it would not be uncommon for a ship to have English, French, Dutch, sometimes Spanish, and sometimes enslaved African peoples on board a ship who needed to communicate with each other and actually work effectively in handling the ship, particularly during storms or difficult weather.
And so they would have that technical language that would be understood by people coming from different backgrounds and it would allow them to actually perform tasks quickly and efficiently.
- The influence of shanties and antiphony can still be heard in contemporary music.
♪ When I say ooh, you say ahh ♪ ♪ Ooh ♪ ♪ Ahh ♪ - DJ Kool, the Who... ♪ People try to put us down ♪ ♪ Talkin' 'bout my generation ♪ Redbone... ♪ Hail ♪ ♪ Nothin' the matter ♪ To this day, we use music as a communal experience or to get us through hard times, to work, or to even when we're just bored, so the way pirates used music isn't that different from the way that we do.
So if we use music the way pirates did, does that make us pirates?
No, probably not.
Unless, of course, you used Napster or Limewire back in the day.
[shanty fiddle music] ♪