Oh, to wander along the seashore conjuring images of tall ships with white sails shaking to the wind’s song. Nowadays, it is easy to romanticise sea travel in the pre-industrial era, provided one sets aside the hardships faced by sailors, and, in the case of slave ships, the horrors confronting the human cargo. Being a sailor was hard work. It was not for nothing that drunken men were press-ganged to serve on ships. You could be carousing around the village and wake onboard to haul ropes.
Sea shanties were work songs for groups of sailors working in unison, such as when weighing anchor or setting sail, on large merchant ships. The songs were not entertainment. They were sung to coordinate the rhythm of sailors’ work. They were call and response, with one sailor acting as the shanty-man, or song leader, and the others responding with a set refrain. In this respect, they were similar to the field songs and ship-loading songs of slaves. Here is a fun modern take on sea shanties:
That is Home Free, a popular country acapella group, with a medley of sea shanties recorded during lockdown (posted in March 2021). From the props they use in the video, it is clear that Home Free associates sea shanties with drinking songs. To be fair, this is a common association. When one hears a shanty it’s either in a movie, or in musical theatre, or in a drunken singalong. The traditional use of sea shanties was obsolete by the end of the nineteenth century as steam power became dominant.
There are no recordings of sea shanties in their original context. The few “authentic” recordings we have are early twentieth century recordings of old sailors singing from memory. Shanties were also transcribed from aged sailors, but the lyrics were often softened for polite, land-lubbing society. In the comments, Steven Olson wittily deals with this issue: “I’m choosing to believe that this is how sailors and pirates actually sounded”. Nevermind, the video has 34M views. Here’s more Home Free:
Playing With Fire is Home Free’s latest video, posted on 11 August 2023. Long-time fans will be interested in the groups incorporation of unobtrusive instrumentation behind their singing. The song is from the group’s 15th and most recent album, So Long Dixie (November 2022). Many fans note that Playing With Fire is their favourite song on the album. Carla Delk comments, “Does Home Free know how to NOT give us bangers every time? I don’t think so. The talent in this group is mind blowing!!!! Beautiful! I don’t know how you guys improve on perfection, but you do every time!!! Love Home Free!”
The Sea Shanty medley is Home Free’s second most popular video on YouTube. The most popular, with 43M views in 9 years, is their cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. With 34M views in two years, one could say that the momentum is with the sea shanties video. Many fans comment that they would love an entire album of Home Free shanties.
Another recurring comment is the usefulness of the video for parents of small children and babies. Amsturgill222 writes, “Do you realize how many parents and grandparents you have saved from baby shark.??!! Young ones love this and so do we. Watching toddlers trying to stomp and clap at the same time. You create many smiles. They beg for it.” Squeegee says, “After discovering that shanties calmed my newborn, we asked Alexa to play shanties and she played this song. Since then, this has been our default lullaby, which works like a charm 9 times out of 10. Thankfully we love this medley too, but the peaceful baby is a nice perk. Thanks for the help, Home Free!”
Home Free was founded by Chris Rupp in Mankato, Minnesota, in January 2001. Most of the group of five, which included Rupp’s brother Adam, were teenagers. The group became professional in 2007, with their work including stints on cruise ships. Over the years the members changed, but the Rupp brothers were constants until, in 2016, Chris Rupp went solo. By this point, the group had won the The Sing-Off 2013 and concluded a nationwide The Sing-Off tour in 2014.
In 2015, Home Free featured on Children, Go Where I Send Thee on Kenny Rogers’ final album, Once Again It’s Christmas. They also joined in on the recording of Don McLean’s 50th anniversary commemoration of his 1971 hit American Pie. They have also collaborated with the Oak Ridge Boys and Lee Greenwood & the Singing Sergeants of the United States Air Force Band, amongst others.
Home Free has 1.67M YouTube subscribers.