Captains and corsairs: 6 shanties to stir the very seas

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)

You’ve made it. After a tough two semesters, which felt much more like 20, you’ve once again made it to the season of much-needed relaxation and wonderful summer weather. It’s time for pool parties, poor decisions and brand new summer playlists. But it’s also a time to celebrate all the people in your corner that got you through those dark days, and what better than a slew of songs about comrades and copious amounts of rum to do it?

Yes, we’re talking sea shanties — because what’s a captain without a crew?


1. ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’ by Stan Rogers

One hallmark of most good sea shanties is the endless renditions performed by artist after artist, the same old song with very new sounds and spins. Tunes like “Drunken Sailor” or this one live on seemingly forever in one shape or another, and this 1979 classic from Stan Rogers deserves the street credit for launching “Old Maui” into stardom. Rogers’ powerful, folksy vocals are nothing but brass tacks — bare essentials that make it an exceptional song well into its 40s. 

2. ‘Roll the Old Chariot’ by Nelson’s Shantymen

Maybe one of the most vital elements that Rogers missed in his shanty was the importance of the crew. Sure, his tune carries on about how the speaker and his crew mates have braved the near polar weather of the Kamchatka Sea to return to the tropical paradise of Maui, but he sings all on his own. But Nelson’s Shantymen, in this take on the ever-iconic “Roll the Old Chariot Along,” — also often called “A Drop of Nelson’s Blood” — does no such thing.

In fact, the shanty-slingers offer up the strongest contender for a classic sailor song in a modern age. The way the band sings together in a gruff harmony with that old-timey shanty rhythm really takes the genre back to its roots as a work song, where the crew has got to work together as one. The light musical accompaniments make an excellent addition, and if nothing else, you’ve got to admire how debauchery-driven these sailors are, with their minds on nothing but booze and a night on the town. 

3. ‘Rye Whiskey’ by The Pirates Charles

Of course, there comes a time when all the debauchery and drinking becomes a downfall, and “Rye Whiskey” by The Pirates Charles gives a somber, even sobering, take on the cycle of hardship and hysteria, as a coping mechanism turns sour. Despite the grim themes and slow pace, this once again offers a solid ensemble, with a mix of solos and choruses that are filled with character. As an honorable aside, The Pirates Charles also offers the best grunts and groans, with all the gritty, harsh consonant sounds you’d expect of a pirate king.

4. ‘The Captain’s Dead’ by Paddy and the Rats

There’s something strange in the shanty genre, even as it’s returned, that’s kept the traditional British sounding shanties front and center. A lot of these songs tend to be performed with a typical English accent and the musical accompaniments, while full of heart, lack a lot of flavor where there’s plenty of potential. But this track from Paddy and the Rats combats a lot of these trends with a vicious Irish sound. There’s little traditional about “The Captain’s Dead,” from the modern punk sound filled with electric guitar to the Celtic influence, but that’s what makes this song so dynamic and invigorating.

5. ‘The Flying Dutchman’ by The Jolly Rogers

Even the salt-crusted sailors need a good ghost story, and to frighten such a weathered crew takes a fearsome tale that goes well beyond the waves. “The Flying Dutchman” by The Jolly Rogers does exactly this, turning a narrative about an uneventful encounter with a ship into a race against the grave, with the crew frantically rallying to escape the clutches of the legendary Flying Dutchman of old. The song alternates between a softer narrator’s voice and an intense, energetic chorus, but the fear is palpable as the band calls out.

6. ‘Woodpile’ by The Longest Johns

If ever a privateer had a party song, the result would surely be filled with nothing more than sailors rolling into the ports of Florida and roving about with the ladies. There’s no hardships and hauntings here, just the crew dreaming about the better days ahead on the Georgia line once they’ve finally docked. While “Woodpile” or “Roll the Woodpile Down” have countless versions, The Longest Johns is a mainstay on any shanty list of mine, and the group sensibly replaces some plainly racist lines that we’ve evolved past by now. 

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