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sailors at their midday rest

Sea Shanties, Gregorian Chant, and Liturgical Work

January 17, 2024


Opinions abound when it comes to the use of music in the Church’s sacred liturgy, and for good reason: Catholic public worship lacks something essential when it lacks music. As the Council Fathers at Vatican II put it in Sacrosanctum Concilium, “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (112; emphasis mine). It is truly right and just that the faithful should care deeply about liturgical music, especially the music of Holy Mass, because the Church’s Magisterium sympathizes with them and maintains that liturgical music alters the character of worship.

However, the general conversations about this topic tend to spring from a poor first principle—namely, that individual aesthetic preference determines the meaning and value of liturgical music and, consequently, that concrete decisions about the norms of corporate worship, especially the norms concerning music, must depend on the aesthetic preferences of a particular congregation. In other words, “If only I/we heard this kind of music at Mass, I/we would worship better.” This attitude pervades both predominant positions that constantly inhabit this kind of talk in the postconciliar era, what may loosely be characterized as “traditionalist” and “liberal” positions, and it is a major problem, because this attitude betrays an enormous misunderstanding about what it means to worship God and live liturgically. Since many of the major premises maintained by both positions have been beaten to a pulp in other circles, the goal here will be to examine the subject through the lens of an ancient secular musical tradition, that of the sea shanty, and perhaps discover what that tradition can reveal about why the Roman Church venerates her own particular musical tradition, Gregorian chant, which Sacrosanctum Concilium insists is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116).

Catholics are bound to take their place on the Barque of Peter and lay their hands on the liturgical ropes . . .

The earliest origins of the sea shanty tradition antedate the Church herself, with the most notable examples appearing in Greek and Roman seafaring. Stan Hugill, the dominant twentieth-century historian of sailor songs and himself a sailor, explains in his book Shanties from the Seven Seas that “in Greek and Roman galleys, triremes, and whatnot any singing that was done would be at the oars—rowing songs rather than heaving and hauling chants,” the latter kind being the most typical of what we now call sea shanties. These kinds of songs used at sea are very simple and universal and have been employed across the centuries, encountered on Indian, Japanese, and Chinese ships in addition to European and North American ones. “Not unmelodious voices,” Hugill writes, “would oft-times be raised to cheer the soul, curse the afterguard and owner, mark the beat, and lighten the labour.” The most widely known shanties these days come from Ireland, England, and the United States, many of which are still commonly sung today, albeit in a form fit for concert halls and back porches rather than on deck. Popular examples include “Drunken Sailor,” “South Australia,” “Shenandoah,” and “The Leaving of Liverpool.”

Shanties were never used for leisure or to provide some respite when the shift was done—far from it. They were purely functional and employed solely to meet a need on the ship and aid sailors in their duties. Hugill insists that

to the seamen of America, Britain, and northern Europe a shanty was as much a part of the equipment as a sheath-knife and pannikin. Shanties were always associated with work—and a rigid tabu [taboo] held against singing them ashore. When the sailor caroused ashore, or sang at sea in the dog-watches, his choice would invariably be a popular ballad, love song, or the like. To sing a shanty when there was no heaving or hauling would be courting trouble—and the sailing-ship man was superstitious to a degree.

At the peak of their use, shanties proved indispensable for getting the work done and keeping a shipshape operation at sea. William Main Doerflinger, one of the most important collectors of shanties during the early twentieth century, explains in his work Shantymen and Shantyboys that “without [shanties], many a fine, tall clipper would not again have sailed serenely into port. ‘A shanty,’ shellbacks [experienced seamen] said, ‘is another hand on the rope.’ Hauling away on the ropes was but one of the forms of backbreaking sea labor these inimitable songs served to time and enliven.”

The shanty occupied all the sailors involved in the task at hand. Generally, a chosen song leader, the “shantyman,” would engage the sailors in a call and response, in which the shantyman would sing the solo parts and the sailors respond with the chorus, putting their work into a steady, solid rhythm. Doerflinger describes one such back-and-forth:

Gripping the rope as high above his head as he could reach, the shantyman made sure his shipmates were “doublehanded on the rope.” He “sang out” in the weird, inimitable fashion of the sailor. Then he lifted his voice in the solo part of a short-haul shanty. His mates roared the chorus and on its last, heavily stressed word, all hands “hauled away together.”

Intriguingly, very similar forms of work songs appear all over the world. One of particular note is the slave song tradition in the United States, in which slaves used the same back-and-forth style to lighten the load of their work (think of the opening scene of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Hugill even argues in Shanties from the Seven Seas that slave songs were influential in the formation of many sea shanties. African-Americans, “those of the West Indies and the Southern States of America, were responsible for quite a number of these songs.” That this drive to create music to fit the work attends people of all cultures and circumstances is clearly apparent.

How does Gregorian chant relate to all this, besides the plain fact that their etymological roots are literally the same (historically, “shanty” was just as often spelled “chantey”)? In essence, Gregorian chant fits precisely that same category of music, music that has arisen out of a particular need to carry out work, in this case, the specific work of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Now strictly speaking, Gregorian chant refers to the system of music that the Church arranged and codified during the Carolingian Renaissance and set to musical notation during the High Middle Ages. The content of that system dates back to the earliest generations of Christians and some of it perhaps even before Christianity, originating in Jewish synagogue worship. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) explains in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy that

singing [in synagogue worship] was clearly related to a text and always, with regard to content, directed to a particular statement. It presumably involved a kind of speech-song that allowed changes of note in the melody only at the beginning and end. . . . Thus, in the musical sphere, biblical faith created its own form of culture, an expression appropriate to its inward essence. (emphasis added)

Ratzinger goes on to describe how the early Church of the first few centuries adopted this very form of liturgical music:

The Christian communities had grown out of the synagogue and, along with the christologically interpreted Psalter, had also taken over the synagogue’s way of singing. Very soon new Christian hymns and canticles came into being: first, with a wholly Old Testament foundation, the Benedictus and Magnificat, but then christologically focused texts, preeminently the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, the hymn of Christ in the epistle to the Philippians, and the song of Christ in the first epistle to Timothy.

Each of those hymns and canticles that Ratzinger highlights, by the way, have been so well preserved and reverenced in the Church’s liturgical prayer that they still form the major bedrock of the Liturgy of the Hours. Indeed, this adoption and integration reached its climax in the Roman Church during the first millennium with the codification of Gregorian chant. As the Mass of the Roman Rite began to take a definitive universal shape, the music “appropriate to the inward essence” of the Mass established itself: “In the West, in the form of Gregorian chant, the inherited tradition of psalm-singing was developed to a new sublimity and purity, which set a permanent standard for sacred music, music for the liturgy of the Church” (emphasis added). In a word, by the end of the age of the Church Fathers, the Roman Church had embraced her tradition of “work” song.

Of course, the “work” done in the Mass is completely different from the work done on the ship or the railroad, and it should never be confused with the day-to-day labor of human life. But it is a kind of work nonetheless: the work of praise, the work of thanksgiving, the work of contrition, the work of petition, the work of sacrifice. Participating in Holy Mass is a sacred task, hence the Catechism maintaining the language of Sunday obligation (CCC 2180–2183). Catholics are bound to take their place on the Barque of Peter and lay their hands on the liturgical ropes, offering the fruit of the earth and the vine in communion with the priest that they may become the Bread of Life and our spiritual drink. And just as the shanty is “appropriate to the inward essence” of the life of the ship, so Gregorian chant is “appropriate to the inward essence” of the Mass; it came into being with the sole purpose of accomplishing the liturgy. This particular chant tradition, which the Church has treasured up and down the ages, through the ebbs and flows of history, fits the rhythms of the Roman Mass like a glove, so well in fact that it cannot be understood without it, similar to how the shanty loses its meaning without the work to which it is assigned.

Just as the shanty is “appropriate to the inward essence” of the life of the ship, so Gregorian chant is “appropriate to the inward essence” of the Mass.

The great advantage of Gregorian chant, which Vatican II highlighted so clearly, is that it is simple, easily understood and applied, and accessible by anyone of any skill level, just like a sea shanty. It corresponds accurately to the characteristics of liturgy emphasized by Sacrosanctum Concilium: noble simplicity (34), fully conscious and active participation (14), adaptability to both Latin and the vernacular (26), and a more profound immersion into Holy Scripture (35). Twentieth-century popes paving the way for Vatican II exalted these characteristics as they are expressed in Gregorian chant. Pope St. Pius X wrote in his 1903 motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini,

Gregorian chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music. . . . The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple. . . . Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of Gregorian chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.

Pope Pius XII in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei built upon his predecessor’s momentum alongside the other major groundwork that he laid for Vatican II during his papacy:

Gregorian chant, which the Roman Church considers her own as handed down from antiquity and kept under her close tutelage, is proposed to the faithful as belonging to them also. . . . ‘So that the faithful take a more active part in divine worship, let Gregorian chant be restored to popular use in the parts proper to the people. . . . Let them fully appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and take part in the sacred ceremonies, alternating their voices with the priest and the choir.’

That last clause describing the back-and-forth between the priest, the choir, and the congregation suggests another parallel with sailors and shanties. The priest, if you will, is a kind of shantyman: he is set apart to take the lead and direct the work of the congregation. Without him, the rhythm never gets set, and the task at hand founders. The prime example of this is obvious, since without a priest, Mass is impossible, but the Mass parts make this particularly clear as well, as the priest, principally, is responsible for intoning the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, with the congregation “rushing in,” so to speak, to complete the prayer. Another example is the back-and-forth between the choir and the congregation during the propers, in which the choir chants the verses of the antiphons and the congregation responds with the chorus. Both of these types of music, by the way, render the yoke easy and the burden light: they are crafted in such a way that people without any knowledge of music whatsoever can engage and make their own and accomplish the job effectively. In the case of Gregorian chant, many settings require singing as few as three notes and many others no more than five.

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As Vatican II rightly maintains, crafting the legitimate liturgical space for inculturation, other equal kinds of sacred music, and the traditions of other cultures is not only appropriate but necessary. More to it, painting Gregorian chant in this light is not a repudiation of the other forms of religious music that many often compare it with. Recall from Stan Hugill that the sailor readily welcomed ballads and love songs and other kinds of sea songs in his daily life. The key here is that Gregorian chant is categorically different. One simply cannot speak about it in the same way as other religious music given its nature. Dr. William Mahrt in his article “Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music” explains that “the other arts, architecture, painting, vestments, and the arts of movement each contribute to and support the beauty of the liturgy, but still the art of music is ‘greater even than that of any other art,’ because it ‘forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy,’ because it is so intimately bound to the sacred action, defining and differentiating the various parts in character, motion, and importance.” With this in mind, Mahrt asserts that Gregorian chant “places the liturgy in the context of the transcendent and the eternal; this can only be through the use of music of the highest artistic quality and of uncompromised sacred character.” The Church’s own liturgical history and its devout fostering of Gregorian chant, in addition to the testimony of the Magisterium, give abundant witness to this; hence the Council Fathers insisted that in the Roman Rite, Gregorian chant is “specially suited” to the Mass and must be given “pride of place” (in other translations, “chief place” or “first place”) (116). The offering of the Mass complete with Gregorian chant invites all hands on deck; it equips them to play their holy part, it nourishes them, and it sustains the Barque of Peter in its celebration of the sacred mysteries.