Generally speaking, sea shanties are 19th-century shipboard work songs that are descendants of two primary sources: either the 18th-century work chants and sing-outs used by English and French sailors to coordinate certain tasks that required unanimous team effort, or the traditional work songs sung by African and African American laborers. The era of sea shanties as we know them appeared shortly after the War of 1812, reached its peak as work songs on sailing ships in the 1870s, and died with the eventual switch to engine power, which required far less coordinated manual labor on deck.
“Drunken Sailor,” aka “Up She Rises,” is one of the best-known sea shanties still in circulation. There’s not a lot to learn with this classic tune. With a light amount of digging, you can find some more ornate arrangements, but our campfire version uses a traditional, simple four-bar pattern using just three chords: Am, G, and C. The heart of this song is in the joy of group singing and the colorful, early morning treatments the singers are suggesting for their compromised colleague.
My arrangement includes a few of the more familiar verses, but this is a song that has had centuries to develop variations and alternate lyrics. Vary as they may, they generally stick to a theme of making crew members think carefully about returning from shore with any number of their sheets to the wind. So, what shall we do with a drunken sailor?
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.