No women's sea shanties? Think again.

Album art imageIf you stop and think about it, all the old sea shanties that have come down to us today were, as far as we know, composed by men, for men, and often about men. The ones about women were mostly about a certain sort of women, if you get my drift. And it's not the right picture.

Not all of the men who went "down to the sea in ships" were pirates and reprobates. Many, if not most, were simple uneducated laboring men, who worked long and hard in miserable conditions. They spent month after month at sea, leaving behind wives, daughters, sweethearts, and mothers for their entire working lives. And all too often, there came a day when they didn't come home.

I got to thinking that the women the old-time seafaring men left behind on the shore, who had their role and their work in those times, must also have had their own working songs. But no "women's shanties" have come down to us, at least not that I can find.  So I tried to imagine them gathered together in seaside towns, in cottages on a stormy evening. What might they have sung about? During a re-reading Rudyard Kipling's "Captains Courageous", I got the idea that the loss of their menfolk at sea just might have been a theme.

So is this the first-ever women's sea shanty? Probably not, but it doesn't matter. If others have been lost like ships on the lee shore of time, there's this one now.

Listen to "Widows on the Shore"

Two changed words - different song!

I originally wrote the chorus as "Widows on the shore we be, our menfolk never more to see...", thinking to have the ladies in audiences sing along as crew. But at the Harwich Sea Shanty Festival of 2017, Olga Dyson, wife of my shanty-singing mate Peter Dyson, heard it in rehearsal and said it was a great effort, but I'd got it wrong... ack! She felt that since the verses are women remembering lost sailors, the chorus should be sort of a ghostly crew of men singing to their women from Beyond: "Widows on the shore ye be, your menfolk never more to see..."

Obvious. So obvious I never would have thought of it. So I changed the lyric and we sang it her way. If we had a hit song at that festival, it was this one. When the Men Overboard trio sang it at the All Crews concert on the last day, the capacity crowd in the big St. Nicholas church sat spellbound... I've never experienced anything quite like it. It took a woman with a woman's viewpoint, changing just a couple of small words, to give the song that kind of power.

Men Overboard at Harwich Sea Shanty Festival 2017

Performing "Widows" at the Harwich International Sea Shanty Festival 2017
Photo: Andy Schooler

Title image cropped from 'A Hopeless Dawn' by Frank Bramley, 1888.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
{{PD-US}} Public Domain in the United States (and other countries)

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