Sea Chanties and Call-and-Response Poetry

Overview & Major Themes

Students will explore several sea chanties or “work songs” sung on sailing ships. They will look at the language involved, reasons for singing them, and examples from well-known movies. Students then write their own sea chantey using creative writing to develop thematic connections.


  • Students will hear or read at least 3 examples of call-and –response poetry, sea chanties, or work songs.
  • Students will explore at least one period in history where a group of people made use of call-and –response poetry.
  • Students will draft 1 poem, representative of call-and-response style, using creative writing skills.


  • Students will understand the purposes served through sea chanties and other work songs.
  • Students will use creative writing skills to draft original poetry.

Materials & Resources

  • Whiteboard/Chalkboard
  • Handout of song lyrics
  • Computer/Television/ Movie Player
  • Access to YouTube, or several movies that include work songs (listed below)

Instructional Activity

15 min.

As an introduction to the activity, begin by showing brief clips of several sea chanties, or “work songs”, at least one that includes a call-and-response poetry style. An educator could use:

  • Master and Commander Sea Chanty
  • Moby Dick Sea Chanty
  • The Muppet Show, Episode 220
  • Wellerman viral sea chanty, created by Nathan Evans on Tiktok
  • Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs “Whistle While You Work” or “It’s Off to Work We Go”
  • O Brother Where Art Thou – Opening scene of chain gang at work 

5 min.

Work together with students to define “work songs.” Finally, explain that these songs, often in call-and-response with a leader, set a pace and rhythm for a task. Often, the task takes a team effort that is coordinated, like a dance group dancing together, or sailors hauling a heavy object together.

5 min.

Weaving Through History: As a general rule, sailors aboard naval vessels like Constitution were not allowed to sing sea chanties during their work, but many sailors came from or moved onto other merchant vessels where chanties were allowed. Why do you think Constitution sailors were not allowed to sing during their work? Officers demanded silence because they wanted to be able to relay orders without the confusion of song.

10 min.

What other groups of people do we know of who worked together to complete arduous or tedious tasks where a “work song” with a call-and-response style would have been present? Think movies, books, or Hollywood. Allow students to name. (Mariners, Africans who were enslaved, Army – Boot Camp trainees, Railroad Workers, Cowboys, Prisoners, Chain Gangs, etc). Many of these “work songs” were in a call-and-response style. 

2 min.

Pass out lyrics to several work songs, so that students have an example of this type of poetry.

30 min.

Students work together or on their own to create poetry that would be an example of their own work song. Students will either need to:  1) Pick a chore or a task to accomplish with their work song, or 2) Pick a group of people in history that would have used a work song, and write lyrics for them.

30 min.

Students may read their poetry out load, sing their work song, or illustrate their work song to hand in or perform at a later time.