Unlocking the sea shanty secrets of Albany’s maritime heritage

Headshot of Kellie Balaam
Kellie BalaamAlbany Advertiser
Brig Amity replica.
Camera IconBrig Amity replica. Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson Albany Advertiser Picture: Laurie Benson

These days, seeing sailors singing as they work is somewhat rare, borderline obsolete.

Now, you are more likely to find burly folk getting together with their mates to sing the songs of the sea in the local pub.

Albany’s very own Shantymen do just that — perhaps you were lucky enough to watch them perform at Six Degrees or at last year’s International Folk ’n Shanty Festival last year.

This week, we spoke to founder of the Albany Shantymen Gary Greenwald, aka Grizz.

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Considering Albany’s rich maritime history, I was as surprised as Greenwald was himself to find out our city didn’t have a local shanty group.

Now that Grizz has gathered his merry men, Albany’s seafaring heritage can be enjoyed by anyone who cares to listen.

I caught up with Greenwald on the Brig Amity, a great example of a ship on which men might have sung shanties as they toiled.

The Brig Amity made a perilous six-week journey from Sydney to King George Sound in 1826, when the first European settlement in WA was established.

Albany Shantymen's Gary Greenwald.
Camera IconAlbany Shantymen's Gary Greenwald. Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson

Heading for the south of WA with 23 convicts, 21 soldiers, animals, crops and building supplies made for a risky — and crowded — journey.

As the crew heaved on the ship’s rigging or hauled up the anchor, a shanty would have been a good way to stay in time.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica sheds some light on the history.

“The leader, or shantyman, chosen for his seamanship rather than his musical talent, stood at the leading position on the rope, while the sailors crouched along the rope behind him,” it says.

“The shantyman would intone a line of a song and the group would respond in chorus, heaving on the rope during the melody.

“The shantyman was one of the crucial members of the ship’s crew, and it was said that a good shantyman was worth four extra hands on the rope.”

Between the Oyster Harbour fish traps, the Brig Amity, the Anzac fleet and the whaling industry, few places in Australia have a stronger connection to the sea than Albany.

And while each member of the Albany Shantymen sings for his own reasons, together they sing loud and proud — and they honour that heritage.

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