The old sea port of Falmouth is steeped in maritime history, so it is the perfect place to hunt down some traditional songs of the sea. The Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival attracts performers from all over the world who gather annually on the second weekend in June. They come to share the history and keep alive the musical and nautical traditions over this three-day weekend.

Around 44 shanty groups come to share the history and keep alive the musical and nautical traditions over this three-day weekend. They will perform in 21 venues around Falmouth and will perform 261 hours of singing!

The purpose of the Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival

The Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival began in 2003 and was organized by the local Falmouth Shout Shanty Singers. It has now grown to be an annual event organized by the Town Manager and supported by local businesses, the RNLI and local sponsors.

If you are planning to attend, you can be sure of an enjoyable day helping to preserve the maritime heritage of Cornwall as well as raising funds for the local lifeboat. If you're a visitor in the area, there's no better way of appreciating the unique culture of Cornwall than by attending a cultural festival of the sea, such as this one.

This historic Sea Shanty Festival attracts over 26 acts from all over the world and many of the singers dress in keeping with the songs they sing. Pirates, sailors, skippers, surgeons and buxom wenches make up some of the “crew” of the local Falmouth Shout Shanty Singers. This local group of entertainers is named the “Falmouth Shout” after the name for a lifeboat call. They take part in many events around the country and often sing on the seafront on Friday evenings in the summer.

Many of the songs you will hear at the nautical-themed Sea Shanty Festival involve a team leader and a response from the rest of the crew. The words would have coincided with a team pull or “heave to”.

The Sea Shanty Festival takes place all over the town of Falmouth in pubs, aboard an old ship in the harbour and on temporary outdoor stages. You may be surprised to hear that many of the sea shanties are sung without musical accompaniment, although guitars, mouthorgans and fiddles are occasionally used. Many of the songs are very entertaining, telling a story, so even children will find the music lively and the stories fascinating.

If you want to take away a souvenir of a pleasant day spent at the festival there are many CDs on sale, recorded by the participating singing groups.

History of sea shanties

The word “shanty” probably derived from “Chanter” which means to sing in French. Shouted rather than sung harmoniously, the sailors would sing them as they performed their tasks. Different songs had different rhythms to suit the various tasks such as hauling ropes or raising the anchor by marching around the capstan.

Most sea shanties were created in the 19th century. They provided mental diversion when doing a team chore and provided a means of synchronizing the sailors' efforts. They were also used to sing about their womenfolk back home, their dreams, accounts of famous battles or to express their opinions without it leading to a flogging!

Sea Shanty Festival raises funds for the RNLI

Appropriately, the beneficiary of all funds raised from the festival is the Falmouth RNLI They launch around 90 times per year, rescuing countless personnel and boats from dangerous situations around the Fal Estuary and surrounding coastline.

Apart from raising funds, the Sea Shanty Festival shares the love of singing and keeps alive many songs of the sea and Cornish shanties from the days of Tall Ships and wind power.

Do you know of any similar festivals of sea shanties or the sea? Have you ever taken part in the Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival or sung sea shanties? We'd love to know more about these events, so feel free to share your experiences with everyone in the comment box below.