Life On The Sea

by Mike Wilson

Our story, told from a young sailor's perspective, begins with excited anticipation. From the ship's bell in measure two, and the vocal style making itself immediately evident, one can tell you're about to hear a sea chanty. With a southern wind, the helmsman (the one who steers the ship) circumnavigates the cay. "Cay," pronounced kay or kee, is sometimes interchangeable with "key" as in Key West, Florida. It means a low lying reef or island. The ship then "crosses the bar" or goes "over the bar" or "over the line" into the bay. The "bar" or "line" is a shoal that lies under the water and can make navigation difficult, sometimes impossible, unless the tide is high enough to cross over it. In his poem, "Crossing The Bar," Alfred, Lord Tennyson uses the term as a metaphor for crossing from life to death.

In the chorus of this tune our sailor tells us landlubbers to till our land and build our houses and castles, which would be like shackles to one who would rather live life amidst the waves and the know, life on the sea. You'll notice, by the way, the timpani and cymbals imitating the crashing waves during the chorus, helping drive home our sailor's point. The ship in our story is a freighter that has been commissioned for commerce – to sail to the East for the purpose of purchasing spices and tea. This cargo will be stored in the "hold" which is in the belly of the ship below deck.

We make reference to a red sky in the evening. As the saying goes: "Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." The red sky at night generally means there will be fair weather tomorrow, so that's... delightful!

Now about those vocals. You'll hear right off that pretty much any time a lyric ends with an "in'," like "livin' " or "splashin'," you will emphasize the first syllable and close to the consonant quickly. The sea chanty approach also requires that you bounce on beat one (since it's in 3/4). That must be how seafarers sang in the past. Dynamically, just think forte. The verses are in the middle range. The higher range of the chorus will, by default, augment the energy.

To help get you in the mood for this piece, you can refer your students to some wonderful mariner's poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Robert Louis Stevenson; Walt Whitman; and others. For a quick reference, simply google sailor poems.

Text is taken from Music K-8 magazine.