|Life on the sea was short, brutal, lonely, and joyless for the “jolly tar” except for strong drink, flashgirls ashore – and the solace of song. The songs the sailors sang were generally for fun or to help them coordinate their work.
Their recreational songs, called fo'c's'le or forebitters, were likely to be sung either in the crew's quarters below or, in good weather, up on the fo'c's’le head with the singer sitting on the forebitts and the crowd off-watch lolling about on the hatch covers. These songs tend to tell a good tale, sometimes ribald, sometimes wistful or melancholy, and were probably the only songs the sailors sang ashore in the waterfront taverns.
Their work songs, called shanties, are usually fairly short with solo lines led by a shantyman and hearty choral refrains from the work crew as they raised the anchor, pumped the bilge, worked the sails, loaded or unloaded cargo. With a shanty the sense of words is less important than the rhythm that helped the sailors to time their movements, to heave or haul together, and the song of course ended abruptly when the work ended.
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