Sea Shanties Choir

Ladies, rum, and all sorts of booty: Behind the scenes of Black Flag’s drunk sea shanties

Ladies, rum, and all sorts of booty: Behind the scenes of Black Flag’s drunk sea shanties

Life on a ship in the 18th century was hard, and filled with repetitive, back-breaking labor. Men would often sing songs during their labor, and these songs helped to deal with the harsh nature of the work, while keeping everyone’s spirits up. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag actually contains a number of sea shanties that the men on your ship sing throughout the game, and you can find pages of music that unlock more songs as you go.

The songs have a way of getting lodged in your head, and I often found myself humming these songs while doing the dishes, and then being disappointed when a group of sweaty, muscular men didn’t shout back during the call and response sections.

Darby McDevitt, the game’s lead writer, referred to these songs as “pirate radio” when I asked about their inclusion in the game.

“The songs are authentic and are time period appropriate. We made a real effort to be accurate here,” he explained. “When doing the research, we found out that there were many variations of lyrics with the same title. This was because the story (verses) may have been changed over the years. Ever heard of Chinese whispers? Well, it’s something like that with the shanties. It was a lot of fun in this process of trying to find the right shanty for the game.”

Finding the tempo and melody for these songs came down to matching the music that composer Brian Taylor wrote for the sea exploration portions of the game. The songs are “key friendly,” so when the men start singing together it simply sounds like an organic part of the main themes.

“The process for the recording was an organic one. We had actual singers perform, but the brief was that they couldn’t sing to their ‘best’ vocal abilities. They are meant to be pirates singing after all,” McDevitt explained. “It was a fine line between making the shanties feel like pirates (not as professional singers) yet sound pleasing and not ear wrenching. I think we succeeded here.”

The lead of each song was recorded in a separate booth, and then the portions that needed many voices were recorded all together. Then they added another overdub in a “drunken” style, adding in things like burps, a few random shouts, and even murmured conversation. Once it was all mixed down the songs sound exactly like you’d expect from a pirate ship; rowdy, sometimes a little wistful, and slightly chaotic.

The game features a good selection of these songs, but the selection of which shanties were selected was sometimes due to content. “It certainly surprised me in that the lyrics back in the day were so graphic. Most of the shanties were about women, sex, violence and alcohol,” McDevitt said. “There were a couple shanties that we had to leave out as they were deemed inappropriate. There was a fine line there. The shanties we have in the game though are great to listen to and have a good balance of debauchery.”

The shanties are one of my favorite parts of the game, and I strongly suggest tracking them all down. It’s these seemingly small details that can fill out a game’s world and make it seem that much more human and real.

I’ve included a few embedded shanties in this story, but these particular songs are not from the game. The image for this story was taken from this listing.