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The shanty was sung to accompany certain work tasks aboard sailing ships, especially those that required a bright walking pace. It is believed to originate in the early 19th century or before, during a period when ships' crews, especially those of military vessels, were sufficiently large to permit hauling a rope whilst simply marching along the deck. With the advent of merchant packet and clipper ships and their smaller crews, which required different working methods, use of the shanty appears to have declined or shifted to other, minor tasks.
"Drunken Sailor" was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the 20th century, and grew to become one of the best-known songs of the shanty repertoire among mainstream audiences. It has been performed and recorded by many musical artists and appeared in many popular media. The song is No. 322 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
The first published description of the shanty is found in an account of an 1839 whaling voyage out of New London, Connecticut to the Pacific Ocean. It was used as an example of a song that was, "performed with very good effect when there is a long line of men hauling together".