Weigh Hey–and Away We Go!

URI’s Sea Shanty Social Club performing at the Pub in Matunuck, R.I., in January. Left to right: Dave Hill, Jake Harrington, Denise Walsh, Chris Dodge, Flo Fields, Beth Mendenhall.

URI’s Sea Shanty Social Club is built around camaraderie and a collective love of sea songs, sea stories, and the sea itself. Singing ability is optional.

By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen

“Who is Johnny and why must he leave her?”

The question, posted on the social media platform Reddit, continues: “Someone at school breakfast played the most depressing sea shanty I have ever heard. The song is called ‘Leave Her, Johnny.’ Who is the girl? Who is Johnny? Why must he leave her?”

More on the eponymous Johnny and his ghosting later. The greater mystery is how a bygone form of maritime music seized the world’s imagination after a 100-year hiatus from public life. It is a comeback (almost) nobody saw coming.

illustration of a group of sailors hauling a halyard together

Sea shanties were sung by sailors for in-unison efforts like hauling a halyard (a rope that hoists a sail), depicted in this illustration from a story about sailors’ work songs published in 1900.

First, a short history lesson: Prior to the advent of steam-powered ships in the late 19th century, sailors sang work songs, shanties, such as “Leave Her, Johnny,” when engaged in heaving (as in buoys, anchors) or hauling (sails)—work requiring the timed, coordinated effort of a crew. Steam power largely eliminated the call for labor-intensive, coordinated human effort, and shanties were mostly consigned to maritime history.

Until 2021, that is, when COVID and its imposed isolation caused a surge in enthusiasm for sea shanties. It could’ve been loneliness or showiness—or any other of the myriad reasons people post to social media—but whatever the motivation, professional and amateur singers flooded social media with shanties, with some amassing huge followings. In the 21st century, TikTok, Facebook, and Reddit have become the vessels on which sailors, shanty singers, and fans listen to and discuss the near-forgotten art form.

View from the starboard side of a sailboat with the rigging in view and the sunset over the water

Sea music displays a surprising adaptability, equally at home whether exploring the human condition or exploring issues like climate change.

Other enthusiasts saw an opportunity to create community in the old school sense.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Dave Hill, M.M.A. ’21, leads the Sea Shanty Social Club, a group of URI faculty, students, and community members who’ve been singing together for three years now. Since the group’s inception, its membership and popularity have grown. The Sea Shanty Social Club performs at a variety of local venues—pubs, inns, restaurants, historical societies, and academic conferences. In 2022, the club performed at URI’s inaugural Sea Services Symposium.

Performing at the Pub in Matunuck, R.I., in January. Left to right: Denise Walsh, Jena Panas, Grace Omer, Mandy Watson.

“Holy smokes, have we got talent!” Hill booms. It’s a Tuesday night and members of the club are gathered around the dining room table at Hill’s Kingston, R.I., home for a rehearsal. The Sea Shanty Social Club is a multigenerational group with Hill in the role of elder statesman. Elizabeth Mendenhall, associate professor of marine affairs, is present, as are a number of graduate students, and a few undergraduates and community members. Hill, who seems to tilt toward expansiveness in all things, invited the entire marine affairs department to join by email back in 2021. The group started with five members; it has grown to 30, representing marine affairs, oceanography, and other corners of the campus and wider community.

“When it comes to this table, we’re all friends here,” says Hill, who, with his wife, Dorothy, routinely produces a generous spread for these gatherings.

A Sea Shanty Social Club practice at the home of Captain Dave Hill and Dorothy Hill in Kingston, R.I., in February. Left to right: J.P. Walsh, Dave Hill, Carolyn Caton, Jake Harrington, Beth Mendenhall.

Entering the scene is a bit like stepping out of time. The open design and dark wood of Hill’s post-and-beam home give it the look and feel of a ship’s hull. There’s a ship’s wheel in one corner that used to be attached to a freighter, which is now 2 miles deep in the Caribbean basin with about 5 tons of cocaine onboard, Hill says. Hill is the group’s chief storyteller and master shanty man, leading the group in call-and-response songs. On a ship, such social capital might get you a larger share of rations or release from the least desirable jobs aboard the vessel.

A Sea Shanty Social Club practice. Left to right: Dave Hill, Lee Singer, Hal Walker, Elliott Thompson.

Marine affairs graduate student Rafeed Hussain sits to Hill’s right. Hussain was recruited to the group by friend and classmate Letty Cass ’13, M.M.A. ’23.

“Letty told me we’d never have to perform in front of people—which was how she convinced me to hop aboard,” Hussain says. He pauses and grins. “That may have been a little bit of a white lie, but I fell in love with it. A Sea Shanty Social Club practice at the home of Captain Dave Hill and Dorothy Hill in Kingston, R.I., in February.

“Graduate school can be lonely,” Hussain continues. “Being in the shanty group, having that commonality with classmates, just kind of makes this feel like a home away from home. It’s a place of comfort and familiarity.”

Meet the Sea Shanty Social Club

Hussain smiles at fellow marine affairs graduate students Grace Omer and Jena Panas, who nod in agreement. “It can be a hard transition academically and socially,” Panas says. “I was struggling with coming to grad school, thinking, like, ‘Do I belong here? Am I going to find my people?’ But I feel like the marine affairs department and this group have made URI feel like a home and a community. Coming to Captain Dave’s is the highlight of my week.”

In this modern moment, shanties have a singular malleability, equally suited to ship work and social media. With a change of tempo or tone, a ballad might be remade into a ditty. At once boisterous and sonorous, shanties lean heavily on rhythm, making them easy for singers to follow.

There were a few hard-and-fast rules back in the day, and they were meant to be taken seriously. Shanties weren’t intended for the shore. And songs sung leaving port were different from those sung upon return. Also, no whistling would be tolerated. Sailors who did risked being accused of whistling up the devil; that is, inviting foul weather.

Home, wives, whales, storms, skirmishes, and death were all familiar shanty themes. And shanties gave rise to spin-offs. Ashore, sailor choirs might sing praise songs for those lost at sea. Some scholars theorize that shanties performed a function similar to lullabies, soothing sailors’ fears and anxieties. Shanty lyrics could be reworked to suit a certain culture or personalized to celebrate a local hero. Melodies might also be borrowed to serve new lyrics.

Omer and Panas perform a particular, 21st century function for the club. Designed to be sung by men—and most definitely in the absence of women—shanties are often bawdy and sometimes outright misogynistic. Omer and Panas, together, function as on-the-spot editors, interjecting (shouting) phrasing such as “with her consent” when lyrics touch upon interactions between sailors and captains’ daughters, for example. “We switch it up, so it isn’t so sexist,” Panas says. “They’re small-but-significant changes that make the songs our own.”

I’m a bad singer, and I was a little intimidated at first. But when I came to the first practice, I realized this is about camaraderie, you know?

—Elizabeth Mendenhall, associate professor of marine affairs

If a shanty singer’s vocal talent were ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the zenith, Hussain says he would give himself a “1—for sure.” But he says he feels no anxiety about this—even when he and Mendenhall are given a verse to sing as a duet. Mendenhall also gives herself low marks on vocal stylings.

“I’m a bad singer, and I was a little intimidated at first,” Mendenhall says. “But when I came to the first practice, I realized this is about camaraderie, you know? Everybody at this table has been in one of my classes. We have work relationships. This allows us to interact in an entirely different forum, and I think we’ve all enjoyed it.”

The social club also donates the proceeds of any engagement to local charities, so there’s a philanthropic component, as well, Mendenhall adds. “And it’s fun to have that social engagement between URI and the community through these maritime songs.”

Left to right: Chris Dodge, Denise Walsh, J.P. Walsh, Dave Hill. Far right: J.P. Walsh.

The origin story of the first shanties remains a mystery. Karen Dolby, author of Sea Shanties: The Lyrics and History of Sailor Songs, contends that the earliest shanties date to the Middle Ages. Popular culture tends to situate shanties in British and European cultures, but some scholars say shanties are part of an older work song tradition from an entirely different part of the world: Africa.

In recent years, media outlets all over the world have reported on sea shanties’ popularity. Reasons given for the craze vary. Shanties are easily sung and, as mentioned, forgiving of less-than-pitch-perfect voices. Shanties’ length makes for excellent short-form digital content. Shanties make great short stories. Tales of high adventure, lost love, and terror at sea are baked into the form. Some have posited that the imagined romance of the open sea was a necessary balm for COVID-induced cabin fever.

What is undisputed is that social media platforms such as TikTok have expanded sea shanties’ fan base substantially, maybe exponentially. Master shanty men, such as David Coffin of Gloucester, Mass., lead shanty sing-alongs on Facebook Live and Zoom (Coffin’s YouTube version of “Roll the Old Chariot” has more than 6 million views). In 2021, TikTok sea shanty singer Nathan Evans’ rendition of “Wellerman” garnered 9 million views and landed him a record deal with U.K.-based Polydor Records. Saturday Night Live’s sea shanty skit has 2.5 million views. Musicians such as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen guitarist Brian May have put their particular spin on the form, performing sea shanties online, and singers have used TikTok’s duet feature to harmonize with one another for a richer shanty-singing experience.

You can buy sea shanty-inspired T-shirts, teacups, lyrics, and art. There are professional sea shanty singers, shanty societies, and festivals. The annual Falmouth (U.K.) International Sea Shanty Festival attracts more than 65,000 attendees a year and features more than 70 shanty groups. There’s even a video game, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Sea Shanty Edition.

Sea music is a subject of academic study, museum exhibitions, performance art, and podcasts, displaying a surprising adaptability, equally at home whether exploring classic themes, like the human condition, or contemporary issues, like the effects of climate change. In 2021, the University of Plymouth (U.K.) used “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor” as the score of a data visualization of climate change released at the time of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference.

If there’s a downside to URI’s Sea Shanty Social Club, it’s that many of the members are graduate students whose tenure is, generally, two years, and then it’s off to parts unknown for many. “That’s one of the hard-sad-wonderful things: that people graduate and move on,” Hussain says.

But that may just be the shanty master’s master plan. Hill is an influencer—just not the online kind. He prefers to build a following in person, one shanty singer at a time, especially singers destined to wield influence as industry leaders.

Performing at the Pub in Matunuck, R.I., in January. Left to right: Dave Hill, Jena Panas, Grace Omer, Mandy Watson, J.P. Walsh.

“There’s definitely a selfish motive here, and that is influencing people,” Hill says. “Influencing the future policymakers in the maritime world—that’s what I like to do.”

Hill adds, “I view URI as the nation’s maritime university—a center of marine educational excellence. Sea shanties, sea songs, sea stories, and our collective love for the lore of the sea is a natural fit, given our many maritime-related degree programs.”

Back to Johnny and the question of why he left her.

A few answers from Reddit users:

“[The] ‘her’ in this shanty generally is agreed to be the boat herself. At the end of a time on the boat, it’s time to leave her.”

“It’s the bittersweet angle of closing a chapter on your life, reminders of all the bad things that are also strangely morphing into the good memories … kind of a reminiscence between two people who have spent a lot of hardship together but now it’s time to move on.”

“It’s about being TRAPPED on a $@#! vessel with $@#! food and $@#! bosses because the captain won’t pay you off at the end of your contract (this has since been addressed by the maritime labor movement, but this was rampant in the bad old days). I sing this to stay awake when I reach the midpoint of a job and hate my life.”

Clearly, it’s not easy to set aside personal experience when interpreting a sea shanty. Hussain reads the lyrics of “Leave Her, Johnny” aloud. His take: “Sounds like it’s about leaving home. It seems like it’s about a woman, but the way I would interpret it is …” he pauses for a moment then smiles.

“Yeah, it’s about leaving home and going on an adventure.”



    1. Simon, of course! With our graduated students now gone, and waiting for returning grad students, we’re mostly made up of alums in the area, faculty, and community members for the summer. Please join us! Our next practice is at my house, 40 Timber Meadow Lane (no street sign) right next to the campus. From 138 turn on Old North Road and then right at stop sign (left takes you to Kingston Pizza, Post Office, URI Police). Last of 4 houses, orange door. Practice is this Thurs 7/11 6-8 or so. We’re singing at The Pub, Matunuck Beach Road, on Mon 7/15 from 6-8 or so. Hope to see you!

  1. I am so happy to have participated in the sea shanties in Dave’s and Dorothy’s wonderful home. It is actually true that members change as we have to leave URI after graduation. But there will always be marine affairs students who are willing to join as it is a way to bond with fellow students and professors. Good job Dave.

    1. Thanks Ronnie! We all miss you and hope you’ve got a trip planned to the U.S. sometime soon! Cheers!

    1. Joanne, we’ll be at The Pub on Matunuck Beach Road on Monday 7/15 from 6-8 or so. It’s a Summer Shanty Sing Along! See you there! Best, Dave Hill

  2. Yep, that would be my dad! Very cool watching this thing grow bigger and bigger every day. Awesome article, by the way!

  3. Hi Dave! Any other performance dates lined up for this summer besides Monday 7/15? Would love to see you all perform!

  4. Hey Dave,

    My lovely bride and I have been looking for a sing in Rhode Island, and haven’t been able to one. My friend, Craig (who has a URI sophomore son), sent me this link. We visit sings throughout the northeast. We’d love to visit you. So far our favorite sing is in Portland, ME.

    Your Friend,
    Steve Damon
    Gill, MA

  5. Hi Dave!
    Do I have to be a marine affairs alum if I want to join and sing along? Or can I just pop up at an event and sing along to songs I know? I love sea shanties and would love to be a part of this but I’m a language arts alum!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *