Every Tuesday Night 7:15 - 8:00 PM
Houston Shanty Chor, Frank von Possel and Stan Thornton
by Franz Schoennagel
A German shanty choir has existed in Houston, Texas, since 1993. This group may be the first or only serious male choir in the United States that sings sea shanties in High German and Low German (Plattdeutsch). The popularity of shanty singing has been increasing in northern Germany, including the former East German provinces, during the past two decades. With it, there has been a rise in the number of shanty choirs, (written "Shanty-Chor", in the singular, in German). This contagion has spread to Texas, where the "Shanty-Chor Houston" was formed by male singers in the Houston Liederkranz in late 1993.
The rise in popularity of shanty singing may have something to do with a return to its roots. During the 1950's and 1960's sea shanties in Germany were being recorded by semi-professional groups, such as the "Polizei-Chöre" (police choirs) of Hamburg and Kiel. But these recordings were far too grandiose, with special arrangements, orchestral accompaniments, and four-part harmonies sung by large male choirs. By returning to more simple arrangements and fewer instruments, resembling shanty singing done in the nineteenth century, the newer smaller shanty choirs found that the fun of singing shanties could be enjoyed by many more people.
What are sea shanties? In their purest form they are the work songs sung on board the large merchant sailing ships of the past. Work tasks at the sails, pumps, and anchor each had their own special songs. The tasks required a team of men pulling or pushing together, and the rhythm of the music was synchronized with the cadence of the work. In some places, such as the West Indies and southern American ports, shanties were sung by the dockworkers as they loaded and unloaded ships. The heyday of shanty singing coincided with the peak of merchant sailing, that is, from the end of the Napoleonic wars (1815) until the 1880's. However, shanties were being sung as work songs on German merchant sailing ships as late as the 1950's. During the late nineteenth century, electric motors began to replace hand power on the deck. This, and the replacement of sails by coal and steam power, eliminated the need for shanties as work songs.
Shanty singing was restricted to commercial sailing ships. Such singing was subdued somewhat on passenger ships, so as to preserve the peace and quiet of passengers and to shield them from racy lyrics. Shanty singing was not done in the military navies of the world; it was forbidden on warships.
Shanty singing and its accompanying work were led by the shantyman ("Vorsänger" in German). The shantyman sings a solo line or two (e.g. "Ick heff mol en Hamborger Veermaster sehn"), and the crew responds with "to my hoodah…" and, in the chorus, "Blow, boys, blow for Californio…." Note that in this song the Vorsänger sings in Low German (Plattdeutsch) and the crew responds in English, which is the case for a number of German sea shanties.
The repertoires of shanty choirs nowadays include shore songs. Shore songs were sung in the harbor taverns for entertainment and usually did not lend themselves to the work on board. Such songs are not led by a shantyman; both verse and refrain are sung by all. Many are in three-quarter time, and this makes them sound more like sing-a-long songs than work songs. Shore songs were popular with German and Scandinavian sailors, in particular, for entertainment on shore and aboard.
In 1993, members of the Houston Liederkranz mixed choir were part of the Chorgemeinschaft Texas, which visited Glückstadt and Hamburg in northern Germany. The Chorgemeinschaft Texas, composed of singers from German-Texan clubs in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, was hosted by the Chorgemeinschaft "Lied-Hoch", which was composed of singers from the two German cities as well as a number of smaller towns nearby. The male singers from the choirs of these north German towns had formed a shanty choir as a sidelight to their concert performances and for the enjoyment of the Texans.
It was this German sea-shanty singing that inspired Gary Fritsche and other singers from the Houston Liederkranz to form a German "Shanty-Chor" when they returned to Houston. Gary's vision involved using the special talents of particular Liederkranz members that are suited to German shanty singing. As shantymen, two north German immigrants, Frank von Possel and Wolfgang Heuer, were recruited. Both are familiar with Low German; Frank even served in the German merchant marine in the 1950's. Bill Schneider on button accordion and Ed Ranostaj on piano accordion provide melodic accompaniment. Horst Britsche, Wolfgang Heuer, Frank von Possel, and Dale Woodruff play rhythm guitars. Erich Schoennagel plays bass guitar.
About 15 men, directed by Franz Schoennagel, comprise the male chorus. The group calls itself "Shanty-Chor Houston".
The repertoire of this group consists of shanties and sailors' songs in Low German, High German, and English. Even the English and American songs sung by this group come from German songbooks and are being sung by the shanty choirs of Germany. Preliminary inquiry to singers of the Nordamerikanischer Sängerbund suggests that the Shanty-Chor Houston may be the only serious German shanty choir in the United States.
Hugill, Stan, Shanties from the Seven Seas (Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut, 1994).