ALPENA, Mich.– Sailor songs are taking social media by storm, but the Great Lakes also have their own musical tradition.
Sailor work songs called “shanties” are the new trend on the social media platform TikTok. Sailors used these songs from the late 1700s to mid–1800s to entertain themselves and to coordinate their work.
Lee Murdock is an Illinois–based musician. For decades, he’s researched and performed great lakes folk songs.
He said sailors on our freshwater seas developed songs of their own.
“I shipped in Chicago
bid adieu to the shore.
Bound for Escanaba
and the red iron ore.
Oh, Derry down.”
That was “Red Iron Ore,” what Murdock said is one of the oldest and most popular great lakes shanties. Murdock said many ocean sailors sought a change of location. The Great Lakes offered a booming shipping industry and shorter trips. “And wherever the sailors went, they brought their songs with them, and then adapted them locally.”
Murdock said shanties started dying out on the Great Lakes around the introduction of steam ships. However, a scholar named Ivan Walton made an effort to learn about these songs from the last of the sailors in the 1930s. His work helped preserve these songs for future generations.
Murdock said he thinks shanties are making a comeback because they evoke a sense of adventure.
“I think it’s a window into a completely different world… Even when these songs were current, to be a sailor was very different than working out on a farm or working in a factory. Because there has always been this kind of freedom, going out on the ocean.”
Given nearly a year of social distancing and lockdown, a little bit of wanderlust makes a lot of sense.
Murdock said those who want to learn more about Great Lakes shanties can read “Windjammers:
Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors” by Ivan Walton and Joe Grimm.