IT’S no wonder that children like sea shanties. They are usually in 4/4 time, a major key and the lyrics are a bit like nonsense rhymes.
They may be simple, but that’s not to say they can’t be perfected and North East group The Keelers have spent 25 years researching and refining the song form.
Retired teacher Jim Mageean, says: “Shanties developed because sailors were mainly illiterate and they made up their own songs. Fortunately collectors and musicologists wrote them down and they became popular in Victorian times as parlour songs around the piano.
“Shanties are rhythmic, easy to sing and have simple tunes. Some have stories but mostly they are quite meaningless. They are a jumble of verses so it doesn’t matter if you forget your words or throw in more verses.
“They are mostly in march time, reel time and sometimes jig time. My grandchildren pick sea shanties pick up straight away.”
The Keelers first came together when the Tall Ships Races came to Newcastle in 1986, and since then have introduced sea shanties to generations of kids in the North East. They have also performed at all the principle maritime festivals in England and across Europe and appeared at subsequent Tall Ships Races in Newcastle and Hartlepool.
The line-up has changed a bit but they are now a four-piece of Jim, George Unthank (Rachel and Becky’s dad), Alan Fitzsimmons and Peter Wood.
Jim says: “The sea shanty goes back about 3,000 years to the ancient Greeks and there is documentary evidence of them being sung on rowing boats. Shanties are mentioned throughout the Middle Ages but the heyday of the sea shanty was in the 19th Century, which also coincides with the heyday of the Tyne.
“There were literally thousands of ships on the Tyne carrying coal to London and shanties were sung on colliery brigs and also when the coal was being loaded.”
He adds: “The men needed a chant to co-ordinate the pulling of ropes. On a particular word all the sailors would pull or push together and that was worth an extra 10 men!”
The Keelers have a large repertoire of local sea shanties in addition to shanties from around the world including the Caribbean and Polynesia. This month they are reprising their Shanty Boat gig, travelling from Newcastle Quayside to the mouth of the Tyne, as part of the Bridges Festival.
:: Shanty Boat with The Keelers is on August 13 and 14 at 1.30pm by the Pitcher and Piano pub. Tickets from www.thesagegateshead.org