Total RecallTotal Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.  

Once a means of passing the time while sailors engaged in back-breaking labour on a ship, 2013 saw sea shanties take centre stage in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV, where they promptly stole the show.

They are, without a doubt, one of the best things about a very good video game.

Because of the way we’re taught history, people tend to associate the field with immediate visual items, or catalogued information. The dates of battles, Kings of England, the clothes people wore, etc.

But that’s just scraping the surface of our past. So much of the human experience never finds its way into a text book. How things smelled, how they felt, how they tasted, how things sounded.

So when we think of pirates, we think of those visual hallmarks: ships, tricorn hats, toothless men shouting yyaarrgghh. We don’t think of the more mundane parts of life, like singing while doing a hard day’s work.

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Yet without that sort of stuff, we’re getting an entirely incomplete picture of how life used to be.

This story was originally published in 2013.

Assassin’s Creed IV does the big stuff like hats and yyaarrgghh, sure, but it also took the time to research, record and implement sea shanties into the game and make them a core part of the experience. They’ve promptly become a cult favourite, a singalong treat to pass the time on long voyages, a collectable to be earned through feats of athleticism in the game’s towns.

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Most games would be content to simply let you sail between islands. Maybe play some piece of music. But such is Assassin’s Creed IV’s devotion to really having you live through a time period that you’re given the full experience.

Or, at least, you’re getting a fuller experience of the myth. See, as far as we can tell sea shanties weren’t as common during the age of piracy in the Caribbean as popular culture would have us believe. Most sea shanties you recognise from Black Flag, including the famous “Drunken Sailor”, were actually first sung decades, sometimes even centuries later.

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Perhaps the weirdest example of this discrepancy is the game’s worst shanty, the maddening “Johnny Boker”. This wasn’t a pirate song at all. It actually dates from the 20th century, and has roots in African-American minstrel shows and folk songs. Indeed, a line from the actual shanty - obviously omitted from the game - is “O Jonny Boker, help dat n****r do, do Johnny Booker do”.

While this is something that Ubisoft could and should be criticised for, particularly given Assassin’s Creed’s insistence on historical accuracy in other areas, I think they get a free pass here.

Given the context of Assassin’s Creed IV, I can’t help but feel there’s a touch of appropriateness to the fact many of the game’s sea shanties are closer to Queen Victoria than Blackbeard on the timeline. After all, in Black Flag’s modern day sections you’re playing somebody who’s not trying to catalogue history, but istrying to make entertainment out of it. You’re always being told by your superiors, oh, we’ll just cut that, or edit that, or change this to make it more exciting.

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Just like Ubisoft have done here. I mean, sure, in reality pirates never sung most or even any of these sea shanties. They just chanted on the decks of their ships, or perhaps sung songs that have been lost to time. Boring. But just like the staff at Abstergo Entertainment, Ubisoft’s primary job isn’t to educate you. It’s to entertain you. And if they have to flesh out the experience of being a Caribbean pirate by borrowing another era’s work songs, and playing to a stereotype, then the entertainment is better for it.

Anyway, inaccurate or not, the songs are still awesome, performed with gusto and adding a ton to the atmosphere of the game’s sailing sections. So here are the best of them! (With thanks to Kosappi Uni for the videos!)

LOWLANDS AWAY

That Lowlands harmony...it gets me every time. Even in a YouTube video. If this is playing on a calm night, and you’re sailing with the moonlight at your back, well...if you’re not covered in goosebumps, there’s something wrong with you. Seek help immediately.

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This shanty, British in origin, actually dates from around the 1860s, and is about a sailor’s lady friend visiting him in his dreams.

DRUNKEN SAILOR

It’s as famous as tricorn hats and swashed buckles, and also one of the oldest sea shanties on record, dating back to at least the 1830s. Used mostly on larger ships, it was the only work song permitted by the Royal Navy.

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DERBY RAM

Isn’t it the best? It’s exactly the kind of thing you imagine pirates singing, drunk off rum and swinging at the ropes. They never did, of course, since this song dates back to the early 19th century, but it’s an awesome tune regardless. I mean, how often do you get to hear a song about a giant ram terrorising the countryside, killing all in its path?

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CHEERLY MAN

Cheerly Man is actually an American shanty, one of the most popular of the 19th century. The lyrics you hear in the game are the “radio edit”; 20th century author Joanna Colcord once wrote that the more common lyrics from the period “are too racy to reproduce without considerable editing.”

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FISH IN THE SEA

Starting life as a Scottish fisherman’s song, it soon made its way over the Atlantic and became popular in both the US and Canada. You’ll notice each verse involves a creature of the sea; sailors would keep adding to the song as long as they could keep thinking of new fish with catchy words.