Boats and music go together like love and marriage and they probably always have.
Everyone has seen movie images of clipper ship sailors singing capstan shanties as they haul up sails, cargo, anchors, and all the other things that need hauling. You may have heard “forebitters” — the romantic, non-working, going home songs like “Rolling Home.” You may have even heard a sea shanty musical group called The Forebitters who are essentially the house band for the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.
Ditties, capstan shanties, forebitters, whaling ballads, laborious call-and-response songs — they’re all salty and many stemmed from African-American and Caribbean work song tradition. If you’re interested in the traditional seafaring folk songs, the definitive text is Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas.
And then there’s always Burl Ives’s 1956 album, Down To the Sea In Ships.
Flash forward to the modern era, and it’s clear that sailing and voyaging still inspire songwriters and musicians and must also appeal, naturally, to many who are drawn by “the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking.”
As the sailing motif has crossed over into popular music, how many of the songs thus inspired have become yacht anthems for today’s sailors?
There’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor” and “A Pirate Looks At Forty” by Jimmy Buffet. If anyone were to conduct a CD-recording-per-yacht census, who would bet against Buffet?
“Sail On, Sailor” by The Beach Boys.
“Sailing” by Christopher Cross could be a song that takes you away to where you've always heard it could be.
“Ship Is Sailing” by Jimmy Cliff.
“Sail Away,” the beautiful title track from Randy Newman’s 1972 album is at closer listen, an irony tinged sales pitch from a slave trader to prospective slaves. Newman also penned “I Will Go Sailing No More” for the Disney movie, Toy Story.
“Sailing to Philadelphia” by Mark Knopfler might make your list if Cape May’s on your chart.
There’s “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, co-written by Stephen Stills and Rick and Michael Curtis based on the latter duo’s original song “Seven League Boots.”
And if we drift into country a number of years back, there’s the classic “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” by Moon Mullican, reaching number one on the Country & Western chart in 1950 and covered by Leon Russell on his album Hank Wilson’s Back.
I’ll sail my ship alone,
Though all the sails be torn
And if it starts to sink
Then I’ll blame you.
Let’s agree to differentiate between antique shanties and the highbrow classics like Debussy’s La Mer and Handel’s Water Music, but it’s a fair bet to say that most voyageurs have a best-loved pop theme to listen to at anchor or under way.
So tell us. Do you have a “sailing” song that’s a favorite on your boat?