Shanty Brisbane sings shanties and other songs of the sea for their own enjoyment. “The company, the beer, and the rum are all excellent”.

If you have walked along Little Stanley Street on a Friday night you may have heard songs which could have taken you back two hundred years.  You may have heard the work-songs which were common on the decks of the great clipper ships during the age of sail.  You could also have heard some of the recreational songs the sailors sung when off-watch or in the dockside bars.  This would have been the singing of Shanty Brisbane, founded in 2019, which has just celebrated its fourth anniversary.

So what is a shanty?  While it was the wind that drove the sailing ships it was human muscle that did everything else.  Sails and yards needed to be hoisted up masts, anchors needed to be weighed, and sails needed to be trimmed – all by manual labour.  It was to maximise the output of the crew that shanties came into use.  The shanty set the pace and synchronised the effort, with the strong beats in the song indicating when the men should haul on the rope. It was said that a good shantyman was worth an extra four sailors.

Back in 2019 John Rayner was looking for an opportunity to sing the shanties and sea songs he knew and loved.  While there were several excellent folk music sessions around Brisbane at the time they were primarily focused on instrumental music and accompanied ballad singing.  John had recently spent time in a choir, and was looking for an accapella group.  Finding none it was clear his only option was to create one.  Before Shanty Brisbane existed in reality it existed in cyberspace, with a website and a Facebook page.  So the people who came along to the first session in August 2019 were under the impression they were joining an existing group.  Four years later this subterfuge seems to have been quite justified!

July 7th, 2023.  The crowds had been building for a while, but to suddenly have over thirty people was a surprise.  A great night and with over thirty voices the choruses were brilliant. Photo, Tamsin Singh.

John along with fellow foundation members John Stafford and Roger Holmes have well over a hundred years of shanty singing between them – they are the shanty savants of the group.  “I learned my first shanties in primary school and learned more in folk clubs.”  says Stafford.  Other singers had some knowledge of shanties, while some had none.

In those four years the group as grown and evolved.  The interest in shanty singing, sparked perhaps by the Wellerman craze, has brought a lot of people new to shanty singing into the group.  People are attracted to shanty singing for many reasons.  For people who’ve only sung in the shower it’s the relative anonymity of singing the chorus. 

“Shantys are not for listening to – they are for singing! They have great choruses that sound good, are easy to learn”, says Rod who along with wife Maria are the only regular singers who have sailed in a tall ship. For others its the pleasure in being part of an activity with a large group of people. 

What struck me the most on that first night was the kindness and welcome I had from complete strangers. It’s now unmissable for me, and I’ve loved seeing the range of people who join – from incredible vocalists, to people who are happy to sit in the background and have a sing-along.”  says Tammy, who over the last year or two has become a regular. 

For others the historical or social value of the songs – often telling tales of the harsh life at sea – that is important. 

“I love the sense of history and social situations relating to these scraps of a distant past.“  says John Stafford.

Unlike most other shanty groups in Australia who sing indoors Shanty Brisbane sings outside.  This was an advantage during some stages of the Covid 19 lockdowns.  Although the primary aim of Shanty Brisbane is to sing for the enjoyment of the singers, by default the group is also singing to, and interacting with, the public.  People walking by will often fall into step with the beat of a song – presumably without realising what they are doing, but most shanties of their nature have a very strong beat.  Some people stop and listen for a while.  Some applaud.  Some sit with us and join in – three Irish tourists sang a couple of traditional Irish folk songs.  Sometimes we get requests, usually from children, usually for Wellerman

“Once we saw a woman with a young girl in a wheelchair standing a little way from us, but obviously listening.  We made a space at the table and called them over, where they stayed for about half an hour.  The next day we got a very nice email from the woman – the girl’s mother – saying it was their best night out ever!”

If this has piqued your interest in shanties you might come along to Barbossa Bar where Shanty Brisbane meets and sings twice a month.  The company, the beer, and the rum are all excellent.  Details are posted on the web ( and on Facebook (

Our sessions are very informal; anyone who wants to lead a song is welcome.  We have all levels of expertise from singers who have been singing for decades to newcomers who have just stumbled upon us and are new to shanties. Others just come to listen.  



Sea Shanties make a come back during Covid


Cover image, iStock.