The Science of Shanties: Assassin's Creed's Work Songs of the Sea

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Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series traffics in a very specific kind of history: part historical fact, part paranoia, and part, for like of a better term, aesthetic. It doesn’t actually have to BE old, it just has to look/sound/feel old.

I wasn’t entirely surprised when I found out that the shanties in latter-day Assassin’s Creed games were sung by classically trained singers. I understand how this stuff works. I understand that it is possible to evoke scores of drunk, untrained, “authentic” singers without actually employing them.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to learn more about shanties! So I made a few emails (I know a historian who knows a musicologist) and was recommended
Sam Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas, first published in 1961 (my edition is from 1994) by Mystic Seaport.

Unlike those of us who write about, say, videogames, Hugill’s multiple audiences didn’t ask of him their own set of standards. Hugill was a sailor; he has the right to write about what he writes about. Shanties are an acceptable topic because they are folkways, and folkways are crucial to identity, be it occupational or national. Musicians, historians, dilettantes: he has a stronger claim than all of us.

Like Melville’s Pequod, the crews of shanty singing ships were likely a mixture of Europeans and non-Europeans, and this demographic make-up is also supported by the work of Marcus Rediker. In Melville it’s a metaphor for a world where white European men (sometimes literally) stand on the non-European men to exploit the natural world. For Rediker, it is a prefigurative movement toward true democracy (of men). For Hugill and his ethnomusicology it’s a place where different traditions come together and are borrowed and reworked toward a common goal. The songs are tools that allow large groups of men to synchronize the work necessary to operate sail ships.

For all three, the sailing ship’s diverse crew becomes a symbol of what their history needs it to be.

Hugill’s book contradicts the argument that shanties were absent before the early 1800s—an argument with which I can claim no familiarity because I am a bad scholar and am only using this one source. Hugill: “The accepted manner in which the earliest writers of the nineteenth century refer to these working songs. They don’t introduce them as something new but merely refer to them as one would a well-established custom.” (5) and “Note that this reference to singing at the capstan is in the period before 1815, a period all writers on the subject of shantying declare to be void of any tangible proof of shantying” (8)

The lyrics of the shanties and Hugill’s prose are full of the racial terminology of their time. Even when he acknowledges the ways a variety of musical traditions influenced each other, his portrayal of shanty change from less-to-more complex (rhythmic chants developed eventually into more tuneful melodies) often resorts to racial explanations.

Shanties are categorized by what was being done while they were being sung. Their form was determined by the labor they accompanied. It might not be overstating it to say these songs created the labor they accompanied. They synchronized multiple individuals.

Sailing ships were huge machines made of metal and wood and people and song. Here are five of the latter from Assassin’s Creed.

1. Paddy Doyle’s Boots

Going to be honest: there’s something about this shanty that bugs me (and it’s not my beardo knee-jerk negative reaction to “we’ll all shave under the chin”). It’s not the brevity of the lines, but the way each one ends: sharply and simultaneous. Hugill provides three different versions of this bunting shanty, “dedicated to one job only—that of getting the mass of sodden, bellying canvas rolled up onto the yard, or ‘tossing the bunt’.” At the end of each line, the sailors would, in unison, haul up the sail to the yard, the horizontal spar from where it was hung. “Normally”, Hugill’s book comforts me, “there was no need for more than two or three verses at the most.”

2. Derby Ram

As a writer, I am culturally obligated to praise any song with lyrics like, “This ram and I got drunk, sir! As drunk as drunk can be!,” no matter how damaging this may be to my and my readers’ senses of self. Hugill classifies it as primarily a pump, but also a capstan shanty. Sailors would rotate the handles of the pump or the capstan, getting rid of water or hauling up the anchor. The call of the song is filled with absurdities about, well, getting drunk with a giant ram. The response, as sung by the sailors as they circled the capstan, is a repeated “That’s a lie!”, a cycle of boasting and calling “bullshit!” The verses as they’re sung in Assassin’s Creed are all present in Hugill’s book, prefaced by the following: “I have had to camouflage quite a lot as the sailors’ version was markedly obscene.”

3. Running Down to Cuba

Shanties are grouped into two main categories: hauling (for bringing up the sails) and heaving (for working pumps and the like). The shanty Assassin’s Creed titles “Running Down to Cuba!” was neither. The song isn’t set apart like the others in Hugill’s book. It gets no index entry. Instead, it’s presented in a quote from A Gipsy of the Horn: The Narrative of a Voyage Round the World in a Windjammer Twenty Years Ago. The quote, attributed to the author Rex Clements, describes the song as “a shanty for doing nothing at all … very infrequently heard and always … an abrupt end after the first line, in obedience to an angry order … ‘Stop that!’” Its lines (“I’ve got a sister who’s nine feet tall!”) seem no more indelicate or less absurd than other shanties, but maybe that’s just my Good Catholic Landlubber upbringing talking.

4. Leave Her, Johnny

So songs let sailors boast and call each other liars (at least about their hangings out with alcoholic even-toed ungulates) and sarcastically complain about how they were worked by singing about nine-foot-tall sisters. More explicit complaints were also apparently allowable, at least during the final songs sung at the end of the voyage, like this one: “Many unprintable stanzas were sung, directed at the afterguard, the grub, and the owners.” I’m not entirely sure what was considered “unprintable” when Hugill was writing; as mentioned above, it clearly was nothing to do with racial slurs. He also writes that Bullen and Arnold wrote in Songs of Sea Labour that “‘to sing it before the last day or so was almost tantamount to mutiny’”

5. Lowlands Away

Hugill’s got a few shanties about the lowlands, a word that “seemed to have a fascination for the shantyman … A very ancient song of the sea sings of the Lowlands of Holland—the Lowlands of Holland, those of Scotland, and even the Lowlands of Virginia were all woven into the songs of the shantyman.” This particular lowlands song is one of the later-day, more musically complex songs that Hugill attributes to a variety of influences. It’s one of the more personal, more traditionally beautiful, more heartfelt songs of the sea. Ghosts of dead lovers and a sostenuto melody lend themselves to melancholy, haunting interpretations, like this collaboration between voice actor Sarah Elmaleh and writer/developer/one-time-Paste contributor Matthew Burns.

Brian Taylor may have once recorded himself singing a shanty and can totally send you a demo tape and you don’t have to listen to it but it would be cool if you did but no pressure or anything.

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