All aboard for sea shanty festival

Tom Malone is co-ordinating Oban's first live International Sea Shanty Festival happening this June

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Clear the decks for Oban’s first live International Shanty Festival this weekend.

Musicians from as far away as France have already booked to come and perform for three days of nautical music and song from Friday June 24 until Sunday June 26.

As well as open-air events and concerts, including on the Station Pier, there will be workshops and open-mic sessions.

Organisers have scoured the seven seas for shanty singers including John Conolly, Les Brouilleurs d’Écoutes, Monkey’s Fist, The Silver Darlings, Talitha MacKenzie, Muldoon’s Picnic, All at Sea, Linn Phipps, Oban’s ‘scratch’ choir and storyteller Jan Bee Brown.

Lockdown put paid to the 2020 shanty festival, originally planned for Oban as part of the Year of Coast and Waters, and Covid put a stop to it last year, although virtual versions of it went ahead online.

Sea shanties are traditional working songs sung at sea aboard sailing ships. Performed by a ‘shantyman’ with the sailors joining in on the choruses, the songs’ purpose was to maintain morale and synchronise effort when the sailors were performing different tasks such as raising the anchor, setting and trimming sails and pumping the ship.

Each shanty has a specific rhythm timed to the job at hand. Shanties would generally be sung only when performing work tasks, not when sailors were ‘off watch’ or ashore.

Off-watch the sailors would sometimes gather together at the foc’sle head at the front of the ship and sing different longer form songs known as forebitters named for the bitts (large bollards) they sat on in the forward (fore) part of the ships. These songs were occasionally accompanied by musical instruments if any of the crew played. The shanties themselves were always sung unaccompanied.

They are living history of the most accessible kind allowing us to connect with the lives and loves of the sailors of old and the world that they lived in. The songs themselves are often tragic, frequently humorous and sometimes brutal or bawdy, and all have great tunes and choruses you can learn quickly.

The shanties we know today come from the period 1850-1920 in the age of merchant sail, mainly aboard the Western Ocean packets, sailing ships running across the Atlantic on a schedule.

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