27 Best Sea Shanty Songs

Looking for some top sea shanty songs? Well, this list of old and new hits will surely scratch that itch.

“Drunken Sailor” by Irish Rovers

Song Year: 2005

Originally written in the 19th century (or possibly before), “Drunken Sailor” is easily one of the most famous sea shanties. Lyrics can range widely between versions but typically focus on options to either punish the sailor in question or find some way to help him sober up.

The Irish Rovers’ version is one of the most iconic takes on the song, adding in a level of instrument work to make it more distinctive than a voice-only shanty (as it was sung prior).

“Wellerman” by Nathan Evans

Song Year: 2021

An instant smash hit when the internet noticed Nathan Evans’ version of this 18th-century recreational song, “Wellerman” is another whale-hunting shanty. It has since received a near-uncountable number of covers, with artists rearranging it in into different styles and themes.

More than anything else, though, Wellerman is a testament to how much power a time-tested song can have if released in the right place.

“Blood Red Roses” by Rod Stewart

Song Year: 2048

The focal track on an album with the same name, “Blood Red Roses” mixes violins and tambourines to the bass and drum lines for a lively tune. Like most sea shanty songs, the lyrics feature a frequently-repeating chorus and story told in the rest.

The song's focus is a ship’s journey hunting down a whale, following the introduction of the vessel and the captain. The song doesn’t tell how the story ends, but that’s common enough in shanties.

“You Can’t Hold a Good Man Down” by The Pirateers

Song Year: 2014

An impressively catchy modern shanty, “You Can’t Hold A Good Man Down” tells the tale of a pirate constantly getting into dangerous situations, from nasty storms to attacks by naval vessels.

The central theme of the lyrics is surviving disasters at sea and coming back to continue on, which touches at the heart of feelings many sailors have while out at sea. The ocean is far more dangerous than the land, after all.

“Song of the Vikings” by Perly i Lotry

Song Year: 2021

As the title suggests, this is a Viking-themed shanty, which is a little unusual because the genre typically focuses on British sailors and pirates. Like most of the best songs in this genre, though, it works outstandingly well with no instrumentals and only the deep voices of the singers giving the song its life.

Timing and harmony are key parts of shanties. You can hear that on full display in Lotry’s song when he’s joined by the other singers.

“Leave Her, Johnny” by The Longest Johns

Song Year: 2013

Originally a 19th-century shanty, the famed band The Longest Johns redid this classic for use in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, a video game featuring piracy as a central element of its theme and gameplay. The band also did a community version where more than 500 people participated, showing how easy it is to sing shanties en masse.

The lyrics vary by version, but the shanty focuses on the singers encouraging each other to leave their ship behind. Tradition holds that this shanty was only sung on the last day of a trip before the crew disembarked, indicating the voyage was truly done.

“Barrett’s Privateers” by Stan Rogers

Song Year: 1976

Sea shanty songs saw a strong resurgence in the early 2020s, but Stan Rogers’ classic predates this by several decades. It’s also a popular drinking song, and it’s seen used as a theme at numerous universities and with the Royal Canadian Navy.

Although the song’s story is broadly fictional, most of the elements have a basis in details from 18th-century privateering. Shanties often have elements of truth to them, and this one is certainly no exception.

“Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate” by Jerry Bryant and Starboard Mess

Song Year: 2000

A more folk-style song than many other shanties, Jerry Bryant wrote this song to focus on homecoming and how sailors who have bonded during years at sea might not want to let go of their relationships.

This version of the film eventually saw use in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a war drama where a British navy ship sought to hunt down a dangerous French vessel during the war with Napoleon.

“Blow The Man Down” by Ewan MacColl

Song Year: 1956

Originally composed around the 1860s, or perhaps earlier, Ewan MacColl brought some attention back to this by having television star Harry Corbett (who’d achieved fame as one of Britain’s first Method-style actors) sing it for an album.

Like most shanties, the lyrics are flexible and can change with singers. However, the common interpretation of the lyrics is the protagonist being struck after getting tricked into signing on for a ship. Unlike some shanties, though, this song has a relatively cheerful ending through reference to finally arriving at a dock.

“Roll Northumbria” by The Dreadnoughts

Song Year: 2019

“Roll Northumbria” is based on the history of the Esso Northumbria, an oil tanker that completed its construction in early 1970. The ship got decommissioned about twelve years later, following concerns about its design and frequent technical problems.

The story of a modern oil tanker is highly atypical for shanties, which usually focus on the age of sail, but this song specifically shows the versatility of the singing style.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing the great list of sea shanty songs! It’s great to see the resurgence of this classic genre of music in modern popular culture. I’m excited to dive into the list and see which songs I enjoy the most.

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