Long before the Mersey Beat became an international music phenomenon a different sound was being carried around the world from Liverpool. Liverpudlian sailors on the tall ships were adept at making up shanties, often about their home port, and wherever they went as crew on the old wooden sailing ships, they sang Shanties about their home port. In those days Liverpool was one of the Premier ports of the world alongside Rio, Frisco, Sydney and her sailors were well respected and sought after by ship captains world wide. As a subject for Shanties the port of Liverpool and Liverpool Judies were well covered in the various shanty songs of the day.
Shanties were work songs and were used by canny skippers to co-ordinate the sailors heaving cargo or hauling ropes with the effort being timed by the stress words or calls within the tune. Man-power was the only power on board ship in those days before engines and electric winches. Ensuring as they did that the crew would exert the maximum effort in unison rather than intermittently it was often said that a good shanty increased the effectiveness more than the addition of ten extra men on a rope.
In Liverpool’s heyday the docks would ring to the sound of shanties as sailors and dockers worked aboard ship or at the loading/unloading docks. The dockside pubs would also resound to the fore-bitters of off-duty songs of the sailors as they relaxed off watch. It was considered bad form to sing shanties when not working! In more modern times these songs were preserved by a few keen folk and sung in clubs and at festivals around the country. One of the greatest of these was the Liverpool Shanty Festival which attracted tens of thousands of people to explore the cities great history and to hear and join in with the singing of these marvellous anthems.
Sadly the last of The Mersey River Festivals is now just a fond memory but last weekend members of ShantyUK did their best to ignite interest among the citizens by singing them a taste of what they have been missing since those festivals were cancelled. Under the leadership of Julia and Derek Batters (or Trim Rig and a Doxy as they are known as performers) singers from around the UK gave up their time for free to come to Liverpool and demonstrate how these songs should be sung. In this they were helped by Staff at the Baltic Fleet Public House which not only provided a great venue for some of the singing sessions but also used their own Wapping Brewery to brew a special festival ale and devote receipts from its sale to a special fund to help finance a 2015 festival. The White Star Public House offered their premises for a number of sessions and the landlady Jackie not only laid on the supplies of the Festival Ale but also donated receipts to the fund for 2015. A third venue was on board the Bar Light Ship moored down in the docks where the owners agreed to open up their new Chain Locker Bar as a venue for yet more singing.
With these three venues providing an authentic maritime background and some of the best shanty singers in the country regaled anyone who wanted to listen with some of the best known songs from the age of sail as well as more recent additions to the genre. Not only could Liverpudlians hear these songs they could join on the choruses or even get up and sing their own favourites. It may not have been as grand as the old river festivals when thousands of visitors were drawn to Liverpool from around the country (and not a few from overseas) but there were a few hundred there to make a start.
All this was provided free by ShantyUK members with the support of the three venue managers in the hope of rekindling interest and renewing the Liverpool festivals of yore. With support from local businesses, hotels, shops, pubs, and local civic leaders and civic minded residents it is possible to recreate those friendly invasions where thousands of good natured folk to sing their songs and see the sights and soak up the atmosphere of this grand old port and take advantage of the shops and restaurants it provides.
For more information about shanties, their history and where they can be heard; or to express your support for Liverpool Shanty Festival 2015 visit the ShantyUK website www.shanty.org.uk