Before the Mast is versatile, ready and willing to sing wherever and whenever there are those who want to hear the amazing variety of work songs that once inspired sailors to pull in time and pull with a will; spirited songs that were worth “ten men on a rope”.
"To comprehend precisely how the shanties functioned, one would have to take a cruise aboard a square-rigger, or study the rigging plan of a nineteeth-century barque with its dozens of sails, its miles of line, hundreds of blocks, etc. It will suffice us to know little more than a shanty was an extra hand on a rope or a capstan bar. Truly, that extra hand was needed to raise yards of wet or frozen half-inch thick canvas in the teeth of a sixty-mile gale, or to hoist an upper topsail yard, sixty feet long and as thick as a man’s waist in the middle !"
-Alan Lomax, 'The Folk Songs of North America'
“On sailing day the capstan would be the first object sailors would come in contact with, either to heave the anchor or warp the vessel out through the locks. Once the cry was raised ‘Man the caps’n!’, the men would lumber up, take the bars from the rack, ship them in pigeon holes in the head of the capstan, and start heaving.
Then from the mate would come the questioning shout, “What about a song there? Who’s the bloody nightingale aboard this packet?”
And there and then the self-appointed shantyman would roar forth the opening solo of his shanty.”
- Stan Hugill, 'Shanties from the Seven Seas'
Sea shanties were work songs once sung by sailors on board sailing vessels at a time when work such as hauling up an anchor or raising a sail was accomplished by manpower. Shanties were critical to the proper working of a ship and made it possible for many hands to work together by provided both rhythm and energy for the job at hand.
When the job was a long drawn out affair such as raising a sail, long haul or halyard shanties were sung . These had a very steady pulse which allowed sailors to move, set up and haul together with their raw hands on tarry ropes. The shantyman would often need to string together a great many verses before such jobs were done and so needed to be able to make them up on the fly.
Sometimes when the job was known to be of short duration, such as trimming or furling the sail, a short haul shanty would be sung. These were used for hauling jobs which required, as one shantyman is purported to have said, "only a few pulls, but they had to be good ones!" Again the definite beat told the men when to exert a good strong pull and when to relax.
When a capstan was used to raise the anchor or warp the ship, a capstan shanty was called for. These shanties created a steady walking rhythm as the sailors moved around and around heaving on the capstan bars. These same capstan shanties often doubled as pumping shanties because operating s ship's pump required the same sort of easy rhythm to be effective.
Sailors also sang songs when not on duty and these were referred to as fo'c'sle shanties or forebitters. These were not considered work songs but were sung for entertainment and solace; songs about home, missing loved ones and life ashore.
It was no accident that many a mate was heard to holler out,“What about a song there? Can't any of you sing?". They knew how important shanties were to the success of a voyage.