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  • Engaging Imperfect Texts: The Ballad Tradition and the Investigation of Chanteys
  • Jessica Floyd

Song, just like poetry and prose, presents scholars with the opportunity to look at a human experience arrested in time, a record of existence that has the capability of reverberating and impacting listening and reading audiences in the present as it did in the past. The catch, in the case of song, is that the genre must be captured to begin with in order for it to be considered and critically investigated.1 As a sung genre, song potentially poses frustrating critical difficulties for the collector and the scholar alike. The human voice, unlike the written word, brings with it a mutability and an elusive quality that is far different and infinitely more challenging than other traditional literary genres to collect, collate, and ultimately treat critically.2 Obviously, there are examples of song that have been written, printed, and published widely to reach multiple audiences throughout many eras, places, and traditions; however, there are particular genres of song that prove more difficult to collect and collate than others because they are a part of an oral tradition that was likely never meant for publication and popular distribution in the first place.3 These oral traditional texts were created for a particular culture or group and were a means through which the community shared stories, history, mores, and social norms, and such objects hold within them a chance for scholarly investigation if they can be captured, committed to print, and critically contextualized. One such oral tradition, and the topic of this critical article, is the sailor’s chantey or his work song of the sea.

One of the primary frustrations that arises in dealing with the collection, collation, and critical treatment of oral traditional texts is the dating of collected material; for, many of those collected materials are a part of a long tradition of song that does not have a clear and traceable date of origin. Just like other oral traditional texts, such as the ballad, the [End Page 111] chantey genre is plagued by questions of stability and authenticity, and it is the purpose of the argument to come to venture a new possibility for the dating of chantey texts that have been collated to this date. In fact, ballads help scholars and collectors think about chanteys in questions regarding both the genre itself and also of dating. Ballads may, indeed, be the key to arguing that the chantey tradition is much older than current collections suggest. Though some scholars and collectors claim that chanteys may be fixed only within the time period between 1820 and 1888, I argue that the chantey is much older and can be traced at least as far back as the Restoration. Specifically, I make a connection between the ballad tradition and the chantey genre and use ballad scholarship and examples to bolster the claim that at least two collected chantey examples may be traceable back to the Restoration.

A Definition of Chanteys and the Problem of Dating

Since little discussion has surfaced in literary studies concerning the chantey, I begin by reviewing main components of the genre, primarily the definition, dating, and provenance of the songs. I close the section by discussing the chantey’s tie to the ballad tradition, which will demonstrate why I argue that the approaches in ballad scholarship can be used in the investigation of chantey materials, and specifically here for purposes of dating. Simply defined, chanteys are sailing work songs of the sea; however, many songs have been mistaken as chanteys, and various items have been filed under “chanteys” that do not fit the very simplistic definition of sailing work songs.4 An item can be called a chantey only when there is some kind of evidence to demonstrate that the song collected was likely sung while a sailor was employed in his daily tasks at sea. Authenticating a song as a chantey, through tracing its direct relationship to work, proves frustrating for the collector, as many examples purported to belong to the chantey genre were not catalogued in such a way as to solidly trace the lineage between collected song, informant, origin, and application...


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