The incredible, evocative sound of sea shanties from the icy waters of Greenland and the Northwest Passage

4 September 2023, 10:00

One of the most famous shanties from the region is aptly titled ‘Northwest Passage’ which hauntingly tells of the magical icy waters of the legendary sea lane between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean
One of the most famous shanties from the region is aptly titled ‘Northwest Passage’ which hauntingly tells of the magical icy waters of the legendary sea lane between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Picture: Hurtigruten Expeditions

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Dive into the musical history of Greenland and the Northwest Passage, as told by the sailors who first explored those isolated, spectacular waters...

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Passed down through seafaring generations, sea shanties evoke the history and natural beauty of some of the world’s most rugged, isolated regions.

Among them are Greenland, and the spectacular Northwest Passage. The passage’s icy waters, and the history of how sailors navigated them, have inspired so many evocative songs – from shanties and sailor’s ballads to whaling songs.

Both sea shanties, born as a rhythmic accompaniment to sailors’ manual tasks, and whaling songs have seen a remarkable resurgence in recent years. Their resurgence is thanks in part to a recent TikTok which went viral in December 2020 of a young man singing ‘The Wellerman’, inviting a series of incredible duets and multitracked performances.

From ‘Take It From Day To Day’ to ‘Narwhal, the Continuing Story of the Unicorn’, join us as we explore the shanties written about Greenland and the Northwest Passage, on an audible history tour of the arctic explorers of old…

Read more: Musically, what is a sea shanty? The history behind the songs flooding TikTok

A group of sailors gather below deck to sing songs together as they sail north in a drawing titled, ‘Saturday night at sea’.
A group of sailors gather below deck to sing songs together as they sail north in a drawing titled, ‘Saturday night at sea’. Picture: Alamy
  1. Northwest Passage

    The Northwest Passage is a sea lane that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans above Northern Canada. European explorers spent centuries trying to learn how to navigate the breathtaking channels and icy waters, and it wasn’t until 1906 that this was done successfully by Norwegian captain Roald Amundsen.

    Today the sea lane attracts modern-day explorers in the form of cargo ship officers, fishermen, and cruise passengers, but the historic sea shanties on this awe-inspiring passage still live on.

    The most famous of the shanties is the aptly titled ‘Northwest Passage’, a haunting melodic tune tinged with the hope of discovery as the sailors sing of “tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage”, referencing the icy tundra surrounding the famous sea lane. Many Canadians consider the roaring song an unofficial alternative to their national anthem.

    Read more: What are the lyrics to the Canadian national anthem 'O Canada'?

    The Wellermen - Northwest Passage (Official Video) Featuring @sethstatonwatkins

  2. Greenland Whale Fisheries

    For thousands of years, whaling has been part of the Greenlandic culture, and whaling songs have a long musical history in the seafaring world, notably for their storytelling structure.

    ‘Greenland Whale Fisheries’ is a traditional sea song which dates back to before 1725. Modern-day versions of the song begin with a date to set their tale, and this usually falls in the early 1800s despite the tune originating prior to that century.

    The song tells the story of a group of men attempting to hunt a female whale, but the marine mammal outsmarts them and she manages to get away. Listen to how she does so below.

    Read more: The time an icebreaker played classical music, and saved thousands of Beluga whales

    The Dubliners ~ Greenland Whale Fishery

  3. Greenland Bound

    ‘Greenland Bound’ is a shanty which tells the tale of a group of English seafarers and their voyage to the world’s largest island, leaving their families behind to make the journey. First recorded in 1957 by English folk singer A.L. Lloyd, but thought to be set in the 1840s, the lyrics mainly focus on the sailor’s feelings as opposed to detailing the hunting of the marine mammals.

    The song follows the sailors across their six-month trip, but it is clear the protagonists of the song have grown fond of the far-reaching island, as the shanty ends with them singing: “To Greenland’s coast we’ll drink a toast, and to them we love so dear.

    “And across the icy main to the whaling grounds again – we’ll take a trip next year.”

    Greenland Bound

  4. Take It From Day To Day

    Canadian folk musician, Stan Rogers, who also wrote ‘Northwest Passage’, recorded another seafaring song in 1981.

    His heavenly lament ‘Take it from Day to Day’ tells of a sailor who longs to return from his northern quest to the warmer waters south and be reunited with his love. Though not a love letter to the icy waters of the north, the song is littered with lyrical easter eggs.

    In the second verse, Rogers sings that the boat the sailor protagonist is on ‘St. Roch’, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner that became the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east. While lamenting the cold temperatures, the sailor has no idea that he and his crew are about to make history on their legendary journey.

    Stan Rogers - Take It From Day To Day

  5. Farewell to Tarwathie

    Originating in Aberdeenshire, Scotland around 1850, ‘Farewell to Tarwathie’ is a meditative song beloved by seamen of old. Although shanties are perhaps best known for enveloping the decks of 19th-century vessels with their rough and rhythmic choruses uniting all aboard, many sailors also enjoyed gentler, more lyrical songs.

    Its lyrics were dreamed up by a man named George Scroggie, whose text tells of a sailor’s farewell to his hometown of Tarwathie, a village just a few miles south of Fraserburgh Harbour, as he makes a long journey to Greenland.

    The sailor dreams of finding riches on his journey but the lamenting nature of the song suggests he hopes to return to his home country of Scotland soon.

    Read more: Nicola Benedetti plays emotional ‘Farewell to Stromness’ violin solo at King’s Scottish Coronation

    Judy Collins - "Farewell to Tarwathie"

  6. Narwhal, the Continuing Story of the Unicorn

    Penned by ‘The Irish Rovers’ in 2017, this lilting shanty describes how the narwhale, a dignified, toothed whale found in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, came to be through song.

    Taking inspiration from the Bible story of Noah’s Ark, the lyrics explain that narwhals were actually unicorns, who weren’t able to get onto the Ark and were carried away by the flood. The mythical creatures cried out for help asking to be saved from drowning, so God turned them into narwhals so they could swim.

    The final verse reads, “He changed them into narwhals to escape the raging flow, and they swam away up to the ice and snow. The Arctic is their home where they frolic wild and free, and they’re called the unicorns of the sea!”

    Narwhal, the Continuing Story of the Unicorn

Thanks to Hurtigruten Expeditions, world leaders in exploration travel, who offer expedition cruises to the Northwest Passage, you can have your own adventure here in the UK.  Win an incredible getaway for two to the Isle of Skye, complete with Walking Wildlife Tour and Seafari experience – enter here.