Harmonia Early Music

Anchors Aweigh!

We’ll hear songs pirates would have sung during their daily work, take a look back at songs about the sea from Medieval Iceland, and more.

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jolly roger

Photo: Manuel Strehl (wikimedia)

Flag of pirate Edward England, also known as the Jolly Roger.

Time capsule for this episode: 1578

Ever since merchants had the idea to transport their goods by boat, less reputable people have had the idea of stealing those goods. Thus, piracy was born — and it was a threat in every body of water until the 19th century. Some areas of the world still struggle today with pirate attacks.

While most of us would agree about the immoral aspect of the pirate’s life, for some reason we tend to glamorize it. But just imagine being away from your family for extended periods of time, sleeping in cramped conditions, working on the ship’s deck all day regardless of the weather, and having to follow the whims of your captain whether or not he had his crew’s best interests in mind.

Sea Shanties

One way that crews broke up the monotony of life was to sing songs, called “shanties.” We’ll hear some songs that pirates might have sung on deck while doing chores to keep the ship in working order.

Blow the Man Down / Black Ball Line / The Banks of Newfoundland
A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl — Haul on the Bowlin’ and Other Foc’sle Songs ([IU Archive of Traditional Music; not commercially available])
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While the name “Shenandoah” refers to the Shenandoah River Valley in Virginia, the origins of the tune of the same name are in the sea shanty tradition. It was first published in an article titled “Sailor Songs” in 1882, it’s posible that the origin of the song goes back long before this. We’ll hear the X-Seamen’s Institute perform a somewhat unique version of “Shenandoah.”

Shenandoah
X-Seamen’s Institute — Classic Maritime Music (Folkways Records, 2004)
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Voyage to medieval Iceland

Some of the world’s earliest pirates were the Vikings–Norse ancestors whose influence contributed to the culture of modern-day Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark. In honor of Harmonia’s 20th anniversary, we’ll hear a more romantic perspective on the sea in this excerpt from a show titled “Voyage to Medieval Iceland” from 1999.

The next musical chapter from Sverrir Gudjonsson’s Epitaph CD is called “Seasons.” In this set you’ll hear more traditional music. In the first song, a boy dreams of the sea and grows up to be a fisherman. In the end he gets his wish, to die “in the arms of the ocean.” That’s followed by a song about the changing of seasons, and then a song about the hardships of waiting for supply ships after the long Icelandic winter. The words of the song describe the impossible situation: “We have no alcohol in our glasses or tobacco in our pockets, so let’s just put a brave face on it and greet our neighbors.” That’s followed by a tune about the passing of summer, and the set ends with an old Icelandic folk-dance “Vikivaki,” banned in the late 18th century, and still danced in the Faroe Islands today.

The cold east wind / Summer / The long spring / Summer is passing / now is a time for feasting
Sverrir Gudjonsson — Epitaph: Medieval Iceland (Opus 111 , 1999)
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Plaine & Easie at the Indianapolis Early Music Festival

If pirates weren’t singing about the difficulty of the work they had to do, they were singing about the beautiful woman they left at home, or the beautiful women they would meet at some less-reputable establishments. Here is the ensemble Plaine & Easie, recorded live at the 2011 Indianapolis Early Music Festival, with four pieces by French Renaissance composers, the last of which tells the story of a sailor just returning to shore, and his interaction with three young French maidens.

Pierre Guédron: Prelude, Si le Parler; Thomas Crecquillon: Un gay bergier; Pierre Guédron: Dessus la rive
Plaine & Easie — Indianapolis Early Music Festival (Live performance recording; not commercially available, 2011)
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Featured recording

Our featured release is a collection of music by Flemish composer Philippe Rogier. He became maestro di capilla of King Philip II’s chapel in Madrid in 1586. Although he died at the age of 35, Rogier left behind over 250 works. We’ll hear two motets by Rogier as well as the “Kyrie” from his Missa Domine Dominus Noster.

Videntes Stellam Magi / Domine Dominus Noster/ Kyrie from Missa Domine Dominus Noster
Magnificat / His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts / Philip Cave — Philippe Rogier: Polychoral Works (Linn Records, 2011)
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Blow the Man Down / Black Ball Line / The Banks of Newfoundland
A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl — Haul on the Bowlin’ and Other Foc’sle Songs ([IU Archive of Traditional Music; not commercially available])
album cover
Shenandoah
X-Seamen’s Institute — Classic Maritime Music (Folkways Records, 2004)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
The cold east wind / Summer / The long spring / Summer is passing / now is a time for feasting
Sverrir Gudjonsson — Epitaph: Medieval Iceland (Opus 111 , 1999)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Pierre Guédron: Prelude, Si le Parler; Thomas Crecquillon: Un gay bergier; Pierre Guédron: Dessus la rive
Plaine & Easie — Indianapolis Early Music Festival (Live performance recording; not commercially available, 2011)
album cover
Videntes Stellam Magi / Domine Dominus Noster/ Kyrie from Missa Domine Dominus Noster
Magnificat / His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts / Philip Cave — Philippe Rogier: Polychoral Works (Linn Records, 2011)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Anna Pranger

Anna Pranger moved to Bloomington in 2009 to pursue a degree in music librarianship. Before this, she worked on a degree in music history at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio. She serves as both an assistant producer for Harmonia and the Music Library Assistant for WFIU.

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  • Kittybriton KB

    The subject of sea shanties is a rich vein, and a good point of crossover with the folk music genre (vide “Knit Your Own Yogurt”!). Particularly of interest to me is the exploration of work songs, a genre which seems pretty much to have passed with the age of mechanization.

    And while it isn’t really a shanty, one of my favourite sea songs is the “Ode by a Christmas Pudding at Sea”

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