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Working Music
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Working music is that which is used directly to assist the rhythm or pace of work or effort.


As far as the Royal Navy goes, it would be a mistake to think that what happens today, also was the rule yesterday. Therefore we must consider the usage of work music in a chronological fashion.

The navy as we know it today with its established traditions and uniform procedures, essentially came off age in the middle of the eighteenth century, coincident with the universal introduction of the large iron stocked anchors. Prior to this we can note that the officer class became established as a career around at the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and prior to this we generally had a fleet of  ships owned by the King or Queen, equipped, maintained and manned out of the Royal purse, supplemented with a variety of armed merchant ships. Most of the officers that sailed them were professional seaman but often the senior officers only had military experience and of these we can count the Generals of the Parliamentary and Royalist armies of the Civil War periods. Whereas in the same periods the men were either hired in per voyage, had a financial stake in the voyages success or were flotsam hired or conscripted for the task. Who at one point might serve aboard a Kings ship and on other voyages be employed in the mercantile service. 

Thus we can say that the music sung aboard these ships up until the eighteenth century, was at the control of the Captain and very readily was the same throughout the mercantile and Royal fleets. Thus it would be common to hear a shanty man singing and the crew responding at all manner of tasks.

From the establishment of the professional naval service and the reorganization of the navy under Samuel Pepys, we find greater restrictions placed upon the Captains of Royal Naval Ships. Such Admiralty Instructions directed the manner in which Their Majesties ships should be have and in the first rates at least. The trend was for silence at the main tasks of ship handling and gunnery work. Thus from now onwards the Navy gained a reputation for silence in drill. That is not to say the officers did not still need to harness the benefits of music, to coordinate effort and minimize ruptures. Only that the numbers of men available, compared to a merchant ship, for the completion of similar tasks were greater. Also the noise of battle was such that if the men also sang no orders would be heard. Therefore the only music heard aboard ship in connection with work was at the capstan when a fiddler or fie would play. There position during these tasks gave rise to the name of fife rail which is where the halyards and main sail ropes were secured. Also known as the forebits where the general entertainments aboard ship took place (see Entertainment.)

In the smaller ships such as cutters etc. the man weight ratios were higher and often the prized acquisition of a fiddler would be taken away by a senior officer, thus no music could assist the task and here we have recorded the use of shanty's aboard Naval Warships into the early nineteenth century

Similarly evidence suggests that men employed in moving spars and large objects within the dockyards under the command of a naval shipwright or Carpenter would use a sung shanty. The author collecting an example of this in 1965.

Simply put from the introduction of the large anchors circa 1750 the Navy was indeed silent for lifting tasks with stores the boats or the anchor. For sail drill and work at the guns. In the greater majority of Naval vessels.

However other tasks still encouraged the use of song and of these we can nominate Hull careening for which the old shanty What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor was almost exclusively the property of the Royal Navy. Other tasks cantered around cleaning ship also witnessed the use of song, either to while away the time or control the rhythm in joint activities. .Additionally and occasionally we find on  record that particular songs would be used for timing drills and accompany marching men in both ceremonial and routine situations.

Many of the songs in these other groups demanded the use of risqué and bawdy verse of very explicit nature. The aforesaid Shanty What shall we do with the drunken sailor being a prime example. It was these songs originally used in the work place that became the victim of


Handling the sails and guns kept sailors fit, the introduction of steam and steel meant that there was a need to maintain the fitness of men, to a certain extent the need to coal ship assisted in this, and we see the fiddler or ships band now transferred from playing at the capstan to diverting the drudgery of the men of all ranks that coaled ship. But the need to keep men in shape was paramount and so the officers embraced the example of the Public Schools and the growth of service sport and the instructors to administrate this new branch was assured. The men found this an ideal place to sing their old songs and so the Rugby song was created. Not just from the example of the public school, but the majority of old bawdy songs migrated from the Royal Navy work song.

Some Typical Work Songs

Drunken Sailor


Last Update : November 2012 a b c