Stan Hugill (1906-1992) was a Briton who styled himself "The Last of the Shanteymen" (he preferred that spelling), and he likely was, working as he did on the last British commercial sailing ship, the Garthpool that finally went down in 1929. Hugill made an enormous contribution to folk music by collecting, categorizing, and publishing songs that he actually sang at work for the twelve years or so that he worked "before the mast." Hugill's blue collar background and almost continuous decade at sea gave his understanding of the work songs of the sailors an authenticity that other admirable collectors like Cecil Sharp and Carl Sandburg just couldn't quite match.
Hugill pointed out that a shanty-man was usually just another working stiff who had a good strong voice and an extensive knowledge of songs that he could lead the crew in. But music was such a critical part of life at sea in the Age of Sail - the only entertainment, really, along with drinking the daily allotment of grog and dancing - that before Hugill's time in the great eighteenth and nineteenth century days of the British navy and merchant fleets, shanty-men were sometimes hired for that skill primarily even if they were of little other use. There were cases in the Napoleonic era of partially blind or crippled men hired to do a bit of galley work to justify their real reason for being on board - they could sing and play a tin whistle or recorder or (most prized) a fiddle. There are interesting fictional portrayals of this in films in recent decades - the near blind fiddler and singer in the 1984 The Bounty and the lead singer in the crew in 2003's Master and Commander (and note there how often even the officers break out in song).
As I've noted here before (and as Hugill confirms), there were different kinds of chanteys for different functions, fo'c'sle chanteys for relaxation for example, or dancing chanteys for hornpipes and so on, a sort of seagoing square dance group of songs. By far the largest group was the collection of capstan or windlass chanteys, the slower and more rhythmic songs that accompanied hard group tasks like weighing anchor. It is into this group that Hugill categorized what he called the "Santy Anno" group, which included "Lowlands" and "Bay of Mexico" and "Away, Rio" - all of which have a punctuating refrain like "Way up, Susianna!" and "Heave away, Santy Anno" and "Away, Rio!"
A word of clarification first on "Rio" before we get to the performances. I was confused when I first heard the song in 1962 because I couldn't figure out what British or Yankee sailors were doing sailing in the mid 1800s to the mouth of the Rio Grande in the Gulf of Mexico. Turns out they weren't. I found some book or other that pointed out that the "Rio Grande" of the song is actually Rio Grande do Sul - the great River of the South - the southernmost state in Brazil.
Note the port city on the Atlantic Rio Grande, where the Lago dos Patos leads to the capital city of Porto Allegre. That's the Rio Grande they're bound for. Also note the location of the state - where the pampas of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil come together. In the nineteenth century, this was an important trading port for all the exports of the region - grain, dried beef, leather goods, and so on. That's why in the lyric "We'll head for Cape Horn and then pull her about."
Our first version is from the Kingston Trio - the original recording before arranger Jimmie Haskell's orchestrations were added for the group's Something Special album:
I actually thought that this was the only number on the album that didn't suffer unduly from the secondary music - the french horns evoking the sea swells was a nice little trick that Haskell stole from Debussy and that John Denver used effectively on "Calypso." Also, John Stewart here is using those extra frets on the long neck banjo - the key is E so JS is playing without a capo, all the way down the neck of the instrument.
Next up is the Revel Players doing a Robert Shaw Chorale-type harmonized version - and pronouncing "Rio" as "Rye-O" as American sailors apparently always did:
Artist Lord Drako Araxis is really talented, though I don't much like anime, especially in this context. But he's assembled the best collection of choral arrangements of chanteys on the web - plus we get a bit of the Poxy Bogards doing "Up And Away" at the end.
Next - since about 1958 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, my hometown Chicago has in fact been a seaport - which is why they can have a Maritime Festival - here from 2009:
The Rambling Sailors with appropriate gusto from the Bristol Renaissance Faire last year:
The Metropolitan Opera's Leonard Warren did a full orchestra and chorus version:
David Peel, who performed for a time with Bob Shane of the KT after the 1967 break-up of the original group, here in a recent recording from Denver's Swallow Hill -
Finally, "Catmelodeon" gives us an authentic-sounding version on a melodeon, which is close enough to a concertina or an original keyless accordion to be maybe as sailors in the fo'c'sle might have heard it:
What a fine song it is, in nearly any version. The days of sail may be gone, but there are clearly a lot of musicians out there who are keeping its songs alive.