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The forgotten sea shanties of Black Great Lakes sailors

picture of an old ship
Public Domain

What brightens up bleak winter days on the shores of the Great Lakes? Sea shanties and plenty of them.

An unexpected flurry of sailing songs have been making the round on social media—most prominently on TikTok. Between our vibrant traditional folk scene and the state’s maritime history, Michigan has a few shanties of its own to sing. That canon includes songs sung by Black sailors on the Great Lakes—whose history has often been overlooked.

The Great Lakes were a trade route that always brought economic opportunity, says Jillian Reese, curator of exhibits at the Michigan History Center. The fur trade was one of the first big industries in the state. Once that trade waned, fishing and mining were the commercial products with the highest demand. Sailors also transported iron ore and copper ore mined in the Upper Peninsula between Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit.  

Black sailors were estimated to make up about 10% of the crews on Great Lake ships, which was a large percentage for most industries. But their stories are underrepresented in scholarship on the Great Lakes shipping industry, according to Reese. Some prominent and successful Black sailors were noted in history, but not the everyday crewmembers who worked these ships.

Sea shanties are one way historians are revisiting lost history of the average sailor. During the 1930s and 1960s, historians collected oral traditions and sea shanties from sailors. These songs were passed down through generations and provide insight into the lives of the people who worked aboard the ships.

“There is very little in the sort of traditional scholarship about sailors lives on the Great Lakes, about Black sailors, but these sea shanties, because they're so rooted in the day-to-day operations of the ships, actually give us a great view into what their experiences were,” Reese said.

Reese explains that many ship captains in the Great Lakes were Quakers who were very involved with the abolitionist movement in Michigan. These ship captains would bring Black Americans seeking freedom onto their ships and disguise them as sailors so they could escape to Canada.

“Many of them [freedom seekers] would actually be working on the ships, making money while they were waiting for their passage,” Reese said.

While working on the ships, sailors needed a way to pass the time. Sea shanties were one way sailors could keep themselves entertained while performing communal labor. Black sailors performed different tasks than white sailors, and for each activity, there was a different shanty. One prominent song among Black sailors was called “The Ward Line.”

“It was a shanty that was sung by sailors working on ships owned by Eber Ward, who was an owner of merchant ships. And he himself was involved in the Underground Railroad and abolition. So we know that his ships were part of this. And Eber, actually a bounty was put on his head because he was so involved in moving freedom seekers from the United States to Canada. And so this song is about the hauling that Black sailors would do.”

Many communities in Michigan have family history in the Great Lake shipping industry. It was common for sailors to settle in a port city once their hard journey was complete. And when the sailors were relieved to be on land once again, they might have sung the last line of The Ward Line shanty:

“Now I'm a-goin' back to ol' Detroit/And no more workin' both day and night”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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