Songs of the seas: 6 songs from the women of the waters

Noah Pasley

graphic illustration depicting a female sailor in a boat on high waters with a mermaid tail disappearing into the waves
(Graphic illustration by Abby Flitton | The Collegian)

There is something sacred and severe about the sea — the haunting depths of the oceans and the gargantuan crests of the waves. But something more treacherous still lies in the waters: the lull of the sirens’ lullaby, pulling sailors to their demise in Davy Jones’ locker. 

In recent months, the once underserved but beautiful musical genre of the sea shanty has experienced a revival worthy of the gods. It’s a trend that leaves me wondering if I should pursue a career as a prophet, considering my praise for the seaworthy songs in August.


Until that fateful day, I am but a shanty salesman, ready with another list of the songs that demand your attention. For this venture into the waters, ready yourself for songs fit for the sirens themselves, shanties and songs of the sea featuring some of the most talented women musicians and the most powerful women vocalists.

1. ‘The Maiden and the Selkie’ by Heather Dale

But beyond the wondrous front lies a deeply romantic story, as the titular maiden and the selkie undergo a journey to wed one another. The literal fairy tale that follows is nothing short of spellbinding.”

In my mind, there is no better way to begin a voyage into the sirens’ songs than diving into the mystical tune from Heather Dale, “The Maiden and the Selkie,” released as part of her album “The Green Knight” in 2009.

To anyone familiar with the Arthurian tale from which her album name is derived, the depth of folklore and mysticism present in this song are far from a surprise. Dale spins a tale about the selkie, a mythical shapeshifter from Norse and Celtic folklore that could change between the form of a man and a seal.

But beyond the wondrous front lies a deeply romantic story, as the titular maiden and the selkie undergo a journey to wed one another. The literal fairy tale that follows is nothing short of spellbinding.

2. ‘My Mother Told Me’ by Rachel Hardy

This beautiful cover by Rachel Hardy, released in February, brings into focus one of the most fascinating, engaging features of the sea shanty genre: its history as an oral tradition passed from person to person among crews.

For many, this song will ring familiar. The tune came into popularity after being featured in the popular television show  “Vikings” on the History Channel, but has seemingly met a resurgence with more modern covers of it following the release of the Viking-themed Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in late 2020.

While every cover of the song brings something unique to the table, Hardy’s remake is especially enchanting. The song itself is simple compared to many covers, with some artists bringing high intensity and entire orchestras to the tune, but Hardy’s voice pierces through the relative silence. You can envision yourself standing at the prow of a Viking longship, enveloped by fog.

3. ‘Paddy and the Whale’ by Ellen Cohn

Ellen Cohn’s “Paddy and the Whale” is something entirely different from the others on this list. No rhythmic chanting or fierce vocals accompany the tune, and no themes of the mystic or the heroic either. Instead, Cohn brings along a cheery, whimsical flute solo — her own take on the “Paddy and the Whale” sung by artists like A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl. While the instrumental sounds nothing like the energetic and sometimes daunting melodies of traditional sea shanties, the song provides a jovial light to an otherwise intense genre.

4. ‘Bottom of the River’ by Delta Rae

Speaking of something different, this tune from folk rock band Delta Rae lies outside the realm of the sea and outside of the realm of shanty. How, then, do I justify its place on this list? Well, for starters, the rhythm of “Bottom of the River” is captivating beyond belief. The raw, primal energy instilled in the song evokes the essence of the American Gothic sound, also known lovingly as “the Denver sound,” a more macabre take on the folk genre to which sea shanty also belongs. The soulful, droning vocals of singer Brittany Hölljes bring a primordial quality to the song, just like the chants and incantations of old.

The song is rich with powerful imagery and naturalist sounds, with the chirping of crickets and the far-off calls of birds setting the scene of swamps and bayous — a very different sea than that of the sailors and scallywags we’re familiar with. The rhythmic rattling of a chain is present throughout the song, a personal favorite that elicits sheer dread and wonder every time I hear it.


5. ‘The Last Shanty’ by the Derina Harvey Band

True to its name, “The Last Shanty” by the Derina Harvey Band is nothing if not a modern take on the fundamental sea shanty, ripe with nautical jargon that pokes at the “Baby Boomers” of the blue: salty sailors maddened by how technology has made life easy for newer recruits. Beyond the jokes, the Derina Harvey Band covers the song with the traditional energy of the genre, cranking out a jig-worthy tune for that other famous seamen pastime: the pub crawl.

6. ‘Northwest Passage’ by Unleash the Archers

In keeping with my initial set of shanties, here’s a fast favorite of mine propelled by none other than the rock genre. Unleash the Archers is a Canadian power metal band formed by front-woman Brittney Slayes. Their cover on “Northwest Passage,” written and performed originally by Stan Rogers, is the perfect hybrid between genres. The band’s distinct rock sound and Slayes’ vicious, drawn-out vocals drive the fairly slow-paced song into an exhilarating thrill ride full of energy.

Noah Pasley can be reached at or on Twitter @PasleyNoah.