Peter H. McCracken

'Symbolic History' and Sailors: Image Development Through Song at Sea.

(Under the direction of John A. Tilley) Department of History, March 1999.

The purpose of this thesis is to explore the meaning of songs used by sailors on board late eighteenth - and early nineteenth-century Anglo-American sailing ships. Shanties, a type of sea song, were used as tools to coordinate difficult or repetitive aspects of sailing. Forebitters were sung for pleasure, particularly when sailors were not on watch or when they were in port. This thesis explores the differences between the two types of songs, as well as ballads written by non-sailors on shore, and proposes a way of looking at the differences, defined here as "symbolic history."

In this case, symbolic history explores the difference between how sailors presented themselves in song with other sailors and how they presented themselves in song toward non-sailors. In songs sung primarily at sea, and not heard on shore, sailors were more negative about their life at sea than they were in songs they sang on shore in establishments where non-sailors could hear and learn these songs.

The thesis explores how song was used on board merchant vessels, and how the different types of songs expressed different ideas. Work songs rarely appeared on naval vessels, but ballads written by sailors and by composers on shore created a means by which sailors could present their views of life at sea to those unfamiliar with this life. Songs about women also show how sailors used music to express a variety of ideas about the women in their lives. Sailors created a "positive" paradigm for describing women at home, such as mothers and wives, and employed a "negative" paradigm for describing women they met in the world's ports, such as prostitutes and corrupt boarding-house managers. Although music is no longer needed to coordinate work while sailing, sea music continues to be popular, and such music continues to explore the ways in which sailors represented themselves in song.