Music - Buccaneers' ballads

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Jaunty pirate songs provide a theme for theory and composition

"Hey Sir - these sea shanties are really cool! How does that squeeze-box work again? Can we have another tune?"

This from a boy in the group who pupils look up to but who usually creates mayhem in the classroom. The others were equally enthusiastic and it was difficult to bring the session to a close. There was a spark here and it might seem rather an unlikely one. Hip hop may capture the imaginations of young people, but so can a tradition hundreds of years old.

It is not easy to identify a clear musical tradition linked to pirates, although I am sure that there are those who have researched this area in depth. However, when we think of Mr Smee, Hook and the other pirates from Disney's Peter Pan singing A Pirate's Life For Me, we are in the world of pastiche shanties. And we all know What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? It's hard not to imagine a striped tunic, eye patch and aggressive parrot whenever we hear these songs.

There is a much richer side to sea shanties, of course. They are part of a strong folk tradition and told tales of bravery and tragedy, some real, some imagined. They were also work songs, uniting ship crews after a day of back-breaking physical work. I thought it was time to dust off our thinking about shanties and inspire pupils to work with this rich vein of music.

Gareth Malone's clips on sea shanties, available on the BBC Class Clips website, are an excellent place to start and a good way to hear some examples. Thinking through some key features of sea shanties could be the next port of call. The music itself is often strophic, has clear refrains, uses call and response, has a simple accompaniment - if any - and is modal in its feel.

Class composition work is a good way to follow musical thinking with musical practice. What can pupils come up with to show they have understood? A good set of verses telling a story? An effective melody? A memorable refrain? All are good routes into composing in context. This work can be further linked to other subjects: it could be great for accompanying a piece of drama (an opportunity to practise those pirate accents) and what about links to maths looking at how to navigate on the high seas?

It's easy to explore with pupils only the music that interests us, or that we think they will want to know about. Perhaps we need to broaden our horizons. What do you think, me hearties?

Anthony Anderson is head of performing arts, coach, mentor and outstanding facilitator at Beauchamp College in Leicestershire

What else?

Watch Gareth Malone's sea shanty BBC Class Clips videos on TES Resources. bit.lyRtpAFT and bit.lyONB8Wa

Help pupils to create their own shanty arrangement with a scheme of work from QCDA_Resources. bit.lyNGl5qG

To learn more about the world of sea shanties, check out Shanty UK. bit.lyQ6YxTR.

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