You may not have heard of an Irish Sea Shanty before. But you’ve heard them.
“It’s a work song, but it’s a sailor’s song,” says Matt Murphy, executive chef and owner of the Irish House on St. Charles Avenue. “So when they’re pulling up the sails or they’re pulling up the anchor, one guy sings out — can be anything — and then all the guys retort back with ‘heave’, basically the ‘heave ho’ when they were pulling. So a classic one is ‘what should we do with a drunken sailor, what should we do…’.”
And because of New Orleans’ history as an essential port, there was a time when sea shanties would’ve been a common sound around the docks here.
“That’s a huge part of the history of New Orleans that sometimes we forget,” Murphy says. “Think about years ago when you see those old pictures, five-hundred ships, these things were offloading, it could be stone, marble; it could be cotton getting transported over to Europe. It could be anything. They [the sailors] used these [shanties] when they were hauling things on and off [the ship].”
Just as New Orleanians can sometimes be oblivious to our own history, Murphy – born and raised in Ireland – didn’t learn about sea shanties until he’d been in New Orleans for nearly fifteen years.
He’d just opened the Irish House (in 2011) when Keith Fawcett of the N.O. Quarter Shanty Krewe, came in looking for a place to sing.
When Fawcett mentioned sea shanties, “I was like, ‘huh?’ And I had to go look it up,” says Murphy. “I’d heard of it but I didn’t know exactly what it was.”
But after doing a little research, Murphy was sold. “I was like, ‘Totally. We have this room upstairs, and this is what we’re about, we’re about community and we’re about keeping these traditions and cultures and everything that goes along with them alive.’ The first night made me think, ‘hey, we ain’t going back, this is awesome. This is a just a great group of people’.”
Audience participation is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. And you don’t have to be a sailor anymore. Or even a guy.
“We have everybody from all sorts,” says Murphy. “We have just regular people, ladies, men, doctors, we have everybody that comes in…because the great thing about it is we’re not too proud, and we all know that our voices need help. And as a group our voices sound better.”
That’s right, Murphy will likely be right there with you. He sings with the N.O. Quarter Krewe all the time — proof, he says, that anybody can do it.
“Sometimes starting off the first few people will feel a little bit shy, but the group knows that and we’ll say, ‘don’t worry about it, we’re just as bad,’” Murphy says. “’So if you’re not hitting the great note where you’re supposed to be, don’t worry because we’re all in the same boat together,’ excuse the pun.”
You can catch the N.O. Quarter Shanty Krewe at The Irish House on the second Thursday of every month. Check the Irish House website calendar for any possible changes.