Sea shanty celebrating South Australia performed by 300 schools

Anne Mathews standing alongside piano in Elder Hall

Sea shanty celebrating South Australia performed by 300 schools 

A sea shanty, written by a University of Adelaide student, that celebrates South Australian history will be performed by 300 schools statewide during the Primary Schools’ Music Festival this September. 

Anne Mathews is an Honours student studying music education and pedagogy at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. While in her second year of the undergraduate program, her supervisor set a task – write a short song for upper primary or middle school students, together with associated learning activities. 

“I never thought of myself as a composer,” said Ms Mathews, who had also just started teaching piano at a local private music school. One of her new piano students was a boy in Year 6. 

“He clearly didn't want to be in a piano lesson and didn’t speak much until I asked him what music he liked, and he piped up very enthusiastically with ‘do you know that Wellerman song?’.” 

‘Wellerman’ – an authentic New Zealand sea shanty from the early 1800s, famously covered by Nathan Evans in 2020 – was a social media craze at the time, and sea shanties were sweeping the internet. 

“As I pondered my song-writing assignment, I was inspired by my Year 6 piano student, and his enthusiasm for sea shanties sprung to mind. I really wanted to write a song that would resonate with students like him. So, I decided to write a sea shanty.” 

Ms Mathews set to work. She wrote a simple, repetitive melody for the verses, with a more melodic and energetic refrain to mimic the "call and response" function sea shanties have on a working deck.  

“Writing the lyrics came quickly. I wanted children to feel a sense of freedom and adventure when singing it. I liked the idea of these kids imagining they were windblown and salty Australian sailors in the 1800s.” 

Ms Mathews felt it was important her song name real places in South Australia that kids could feel a connection to, which would nourish their sense of identity, as displayed through the following lyrical excerpt: 

We're sailors of the Southern seas, come sail from port to port with me. Leave Spencer Gulf and see the Bight the sail is up, the ship takes flight. Oh! We're free sailors on South Australian seas....  

Heave! Ho! Heave! Ho! Kingscote and Wakefield and Paterson, ho!  

Come join the adventures with your crew, where great Australian dreams come true. 

Ms Mathews researched maps to find past and present ports, commodities being exported, and vessels of 19th century South Australia. She composed a simple piano accompaniment, created the learning activities, and submitted her assignment. The song was named ‘South Australian Seas’. 

“My supervisor, Emily Dollman, encouraged me to submit the song to the South Australian Public Primary Schools' Music Festival (PSMF). To my surprise, the PSMF replied quickly, keen to use my song in their 2023 set.” 

Ms Mathews collaborated with Glyn Lehmann, a local composer, to arrange an orchestral score to accompany her sea shanty.  

The repertoire for the annual PSMF festival – which includes Ms Mathews’ song ‘South Australian Seas’ – is learnt by over 300 primary schools around South Australia.  

“It's very humbling to think that so many children around the state have learnt and sung my song this year. I hope it has given the children a pride of place, especially those in more remote locations, because I really tried to include the names of port towns and bodies of water that even the most remote kids might have personally visited or heard of. 

“I hope my song encourages children to cherish more deeply our own South Australian backyard and history, and I can’t wait to hear the song performed on stage during the Festival of Music.”  

The Primary Schools Music Festival runs from 7:30pm Wednesday 13 September to Saturday 23 September at the Adelaide Festival Centre. More information is available on the Centre’s website

Media contacts 

Anne Mathews, Honours student, Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide. Email: 

Poppy Nwosu, Media Officer, the University of Adelaide. Mobile: 0424 988 042. Email: 

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