The songs brought crews together.
Across oceans and ages, sailors of all races and creeds would sing shanties as they worked — the tunes helping them load cargo, pull anchor and finish other tasks in sync, helping them pass endless hours upon the blue.
The songs were sung a capella.
“Those of you who’ve been around for a little while know — you don’t have a free hand for an instrument. You’ve got one hand for the work and one hand for the ship,” said Hank Cramer, a historian and shanty-man, speaking Monday afternoon to the crew of the Lady Washington.
The 112-foot brig — the state’s official tall ship — is in Pasco through the weekend.
Since it arrived at Columbia Marine Center late last week, the crew has welcomed aboard young and old for tours and sails.
On Monday, a day without public events, the crew spent some time with Cramer, brushing up on their sea shanty singing and learning a bit of the history behind the songs.
The first recorded instance of sailors singing as they worked was in the 1100s— a French priest sailing to Palestine during the Crusades wrote of the mate giving a “wild shout,” with the crew responding back, Cramer said.
Before long, Cramer had the half-dozen-or-so Lady Washington crew members gathered on the brig’s deck responding to him in song.
“You pay me, you owe me,” Cramer sang, his deep voice booming a shanty traditionally sung as crews loaded cargo.
“Pay me my money down,” the crew answered back.
“Pay me or go to jail,” Cramer sang.
“Pay me my money down.”
The song had a quick, steady tempo, and the crew sang it with gusto.
The next shanty was a bit slower, sadder — traditionally sung as crew members worked the capstan (a device used to wound the cables and ropes during anchoring.)
“The song is so old it migrated. It used to be a sailor’s shanty on the east coast. Then it came out on the Oregon Trail and the immigrants on the (the trail) added, ‘across the wide Missouri,’ ” Cramer explained, before launching into Oh Shenandoah.
“Oh Shenandoah, I’m bound to leave you,” he sang.
“Away, you rolling river,” answered the crew.
“Oh Shenandoah, I’m bound to leave you.”
“Away, we’re bound away. From this world of sorrow.”
The Aberdeen-based Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority built the Lady Washington more than two decades ago.
It’s a replica of the original Lady Washington, which was constructed in the 1750s as a single-masted sloop before being refitted as a two-masted brig.
It was the first American ship to make landfall on the west coast of North America.
Crew members aboard the tall ship keep the sea shanty tradition alive — singing them when they’re sailing, in pubs, at parties.
With Cramer’s class, which was recorded and will be shared with future crews, “Hank is adding the history, which is so valuable,” said Barbara Kraler, the chief mate.
“When we sing them from now on, we can sing them with more purpose,” she said.
For Kraler, the music and singing is a fun part of the job.
“I think that’s one of the wonderful benefits of being a tall ship sailor — we have this rich tradition in song. You think about office workers. Do bankers get together and sing songs? Do accountants?” she said. “It’s really special.”
The Lady Washington is open for public tours from noon to 5 p.m. Aug. 4-7 and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 8-9. Cost is $3.
Evening sails are from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 5, 7 and 8. Cost is $35 to $45. Adventure sails area 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 8-9. Cost is $39-$47.
Tickets are available at www.historicalseaport.org.
Columbia Marine Center is at 1315 S. Fourth Ave.