Shallow Brown – My Favorite Sea Shanty

Well, I sat down this afternoon to try to write this really great post about how I am going to change my career and become a starving artist.  Sadly after several hours of writing I was left with no conclusion and a lot of rambling philosophy.  Guess I am keeping my day job for now.

So instead I want to share with you my favorite sea shanty, “Shallow Brown.”  I’ve mentioned a few times that I like shanties and it’s the music I listen to when I work.  There is just something about a good old working song that just makes me want to break out in song.

I will resist the temptation to record a video of me singing and posting it to youtube.

The song is described by Stan Hugill in his book, “Shanties form the Seven Seas” as a song that started out as being used at the pumps and then later used at the halyards.  In the age of sail the ship’s pumps were used to pump out water in the ship and were operated manually (no engines or motors then).  It was mind numbingly boring work and the men would often sing to pass time while working the pumps.  A halyard is the rope used to lift the sails into place.  A song leader, shanty man, would lead the crew in song as they pulled the rope.  This helped coordinate movements and let’s face it, lifting heavy things is always done better with a song.

Shallow Brown is a typical call and response song.  The shanty man sings the verses while the men on the ropes sing the chorus.  The song is a sad tale of a man leaving a woman on shore – a typical subject for a shanty.  Like most shanties there are several versions as the song evolved over time.  Each shanty man and crew would add to the song or change it in some way.

I have heard two major versions of the song, one where it’s just the man leaving and another where it’s revealed in the song that the singer is likely a slave about to be sold.  Note that Hugill suggests that the origin of the name “Shallow Brown” is likely from “Challo Brown” and ‘challo‘ being a west-indian term for “Half-caste.”  It’s likely that the women is a bi-racial women.

The song is sad and mournful song – perfect for a good bass voice.  I’ve got at least four different versions on various CDs and here are some links to versions of the song as posted on Youtube.  Please take a minute to listen to one or two.

This is my favorite version on Youtube.  I love his voice and guitar work.  It likely wasn’t sung this way on board ship but I love listening to it.

Alasdair McBroom:

I like this version because of his guitar work and that he lets his voice get quiet and low.  You’ll notice the difference in the lyrics from the other versions.

Liberty is Not Given:

This is an interesting version as Sting, yes Sting, is the main vocalist.  I like this version as it focuses on the voice and the instruments are kept to minimum.


This is just one of those fun quirky Youtube videos but this guy’s voice is the most like what you’d really hear on board a ship.  And yes the guy is singing out in his garden shed.

Songs From the Shed:

Stan Hugill is the respected authority on all things shanty.  Here is a video of him singing.  Note that this was filmed near the end of his life.  There are few recordings of him.

Stan Hugill video:

I hope you enjoyed this little diversion in my blog.  If you ever visit me in my workshop, you’ll find songs like this on my CD and likely hear me singing out the chorus.

Just thought I should warn you.

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I worked in the high tech world doing software release engineering and am now retired. Then I got prostate cancer. Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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6 Responses to Shallow Brown – My Favorite Sea Shanty

  1. Martin Corrick says:

    Maybe you know that Shallow Brown was collected by the English composer Percy Grainger? He gave it a beautiful arrangement which can be heard at:

    This version is sung here by John Shirley-Quirk. I think the versions you have chosen don’t necessarily have the right vocals or the right tune! The Grainger version was collected in 1908 from a Dartmouth (UK) sailor, so I think it is likely to be more accurate. There is more information about this song at:

    You will see that the song was thought to have been sung by a woman to a departing sailor. Grainger was a very interesting (and odd) man who, among many other things, founded the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne to study ethnomusicology – he was extremely keen on folk songs, which he regarded as more ‘honest’ than advanced western music.



    • Andrew says:

      For this blog post I’ve relied mostly on Hugill for information. I haven’t done much research on Grainger yet. I will, sounds like an interesting person and I’ll check him out. My interest in the shanty has been mostly around the modern interpretations of it, which I love to listen to. As with most of this, I am still learning. Thanks for the information.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. billlattpa says:

    First version was very good. It reminded me somewhat of an Irish folk song, though I could be way off.


    • Andrew says:

      You’re very correct. Shanties borrowed heavily from folk songs of the day and modern folks songs have some influences from shanties. The crews of ships would hear songs on shore and modify them as working songs. It’s interesting to note that at sea they’d only sing a verse or two, just enough to get the job done. The whole version would have been only sung in port at bar while very drunk.


  3. Thanks. I loved Sting’s version.

    Liked by 1 person

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