Shanties and Kids

The basic work effort of a sea shantey can lead to great rhythmic exercises for kids. For example, using a halyard shantey such as “Alabama John Cherokee” or “John Kanaka” kids can use the basic work effort beat of “Alabama John Cherokee” and play two-step tag or hold a ‘race’ in which you can only move on those beats as someone calls the shantey,

My classes always liked using beanbags or the spongy toy “koosh” to toss to each other across a circle. They would sing a short drag or short haul shantey and toss the beanbag across the circle to a classmate on the work effort beat such as “…way, haul away, we’ll haul away, Joe!”

A walkway shantey or capstan shantey is a great accompaniment to a snake dance when there are a lot of kids. “Roll the Old Chariot” or “Bonnie Laddie” works well for such movement.

“A-Rovin'” is  Downton pump shantey. The basic movement involves the two flywheels of the pump spinning around. We used streamers or scarves to keep the beat. Children hold on to a scarf or streamer and make a large, circular motion with one arm keeping the beat to the shantey in 6/8 time.

Simple body percussion such as patsch/clap to a macrobeat can be done singly or in pairs. This is a great way to help students improve beat competency. “Paddy Works on the Railway” is a windlass or pump shantey and can be used to great effect with partners.

Public Library Program Available

If you are interested in a fascinating and unique concert/presentation about music of the sea, come along side!

This past summer I had the thrill of a lifetime working as a member of the Demonstration Squad at Mystic Seaport. (That’s me on the left helping to bunt the foremast lower topsail.) And even though I have sung sea shanties for most of my life there is nothing like calling “Haul Away, Joe” on the Joseph Conrad, a tall ship, as we haul on the halyard and raise an 1100 pound yard!

“The Shanteyman” involves a visual presentation of the ships, sails and tasks sailors did on board their vessels, especially, in the 19th century and music they sang. Think of “Moby Dick,” or “In the Heart of the Sea” or “Two Years Before the Mast.” The presentation is informative as well as entertaining. As a member of the Mystic Seaport squad I slid down the line in a breeches buoy life-saving demonstration,  I was part of the crew that rowed actual whaleboats, climbed aloft on the Conrad as well as the Charles W. Morgan. We demonstrated seine fishing and cod fishing, raised and lowered sails and yards and launched a lifeboat during the man-overboard drill.

As a music teacher I have presented the use shanties, especially their work effort, to educators in local, regional and national conferences. My article about sea shanties appeared in a national journal some years ago. The students in my own classrooms have loved to “John Kanaka” or “Alabama John Cherokee.” In school assemblies, part of my focus is the use of simple machines and mechanical advantage.

And, there is instrumental music; hornpipes and such played on the Anglo concertina and ballads, known as forebitters that sailors sang and played during their infrequent breaks while underway.

If you are interested in such a program, please contact me via email or telephone at (401) 423-1574. I can perform for thirty minutes or do an entire concert/presentation. I can gear the material for adults or families and I can bring along some noisy ‘fufu’ band instruments to let the audience join in. By the way—this is VERY participatory and can be a little raucous but all in fun and thoughtfully edited for modern audiences.

What to Expect


In an assembly or classroom, your students will be introduced to:

  • shanties, or, work songs aboard ship
  • forebitters-the songs sailors sang to pass the time
  • poetry
  • work effort, the movement used in a shantey
  • how simple machines work, especially aboard a sailing vessel
  • instrumental music
  • ballads
  • language of the sea, and, well…
  • FUN!

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.


Smooth sailing to you and your school!!