Herman Melville once observed that a sailor who could sing well was almost guaranteed to be a popular one. Not surprising – no one wants to be stuck on a ship for three or four years with someone who can’t hold a tune. “It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates,” Melville wrote in 1849. “Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.”
Why is this relevant now? Well, just take a glance on TikTok, me hearties. Sea shanties and sea songs (there’s a big difference, which I’ll get to shortly) are currently enjoying viral popularity on the social media platform. Musicians have experienced huge follower surges after sharing their takes, while other users are teaming up to create mass singalongs. The genres have proven so popular that a cover of one of the most popular songs, “Wellerman”, by Bristol-based group The Longest Johns, has sailed into the UK Top 40. A viral TikTok video of two young men listening to the version in their car has received more than 350,000 likes after being shared to Twitter. Google reports that searches for the term “sea shanties” are at an all-time high in the US, while online communities on Reddit are among the fastest-growing on the site.
Meanwhile, Scottish postman and musician Nathan Evans’s covers of sea songs and shanties have attracted millions of views. “I did a sea shanty back in July 2020, just because someone had asked in a comment under one of my videos,” he told the BBC. ”So I uploaded that and it reached 1.1 million views. I thought there must have been a demand.
“People were looking forward to more and they were commenting underneath every video after that saying can you sing this one, can you sing that one – it was just requests from people for me to sing them.”
However, it has already been pointed out by experts that “Wellerman” is more of a sea song than a shanty. “This may seem like semantic nitpicking,” an article in JStor Daily points out, “but for some scholars the distinction between shanties and sea songs is a really big deal.”
Confusion over the difference between a sea song and a sea shanty has reigned for decades. In a 1937 essay, scholar Harold Whates wrote that, while a listener may have trouble distinguishing the two, aboard a ship there could never be any mistaking a sea shanty for a sea song. “Shanties were sung at work and had an exact relationship to the many varieties of heavy physical toil involved in handling a square-rigger,” he wrote. “No sailor would have dreamt of singing a shanty in his watch below. It cannot have been easy to induce him to sing one properly when ashore… a rope or capstan bar and hard work, either monotonous or extremely strenuous, were essential accompaniments to a shanty.”
Fellow scholar William Saunders wrote in 1928 that the essential point of a shanty was rhythm, because this helped sailors work as a team. The lyrics were less important and were often downright nonsensical, because they were being sung by men who were “weary, overworked and underfed”.
“The Wellerman” is believed to have originated in the 19th Century, and follows the escapades of The Billy and Tea ship, and its crew’s encounter with a whale. In New Zealand during the 1830s, whalers would be sold provisions by the English-born traders the Weller brothers, whose employees became known as “wellermen”. So, the song isn’t a working song but instead one about whalers waiting for their “sugar and tea and rum” to turn up.
Saunders also wrote that shanties should never, ever be performed with instruments: “A sea-shanty treated in this manner is a complete anachronism.” The requirements for a sea song, by contrast, were simply that they were entertaining and included lyrics that referenced the sea. They had “no conscious utilitarian purpose whatsoever”. So while they’re fun, those videos of TikTokers banging drums, strumming guitars and playing fiddles as they sing are definitely breaking sea shanty tradition.
Shanties can be traced back to at least the mid-1400s, from the heyday of the “tall” merchant sailing ships, which were used for carrying cargo over large bodies of water. Experts tend to place shanties into two categories: “hauling shanties” (or “pulling shanties”), used for work where the physical effort was intermittent, and “heaving shanties”, which were used during work where there was a sustained rhythm. It’s not certain where the word “shanty” came from – some believe it can be derived from the French, chanter (“to sing”), while others have suggested it comes from the English “chant”, from the tradition of Gregorian religious chanting.
This is by no means the first time that sea shanties and sea songs have experienced a resurgence in popularity. The late Canadian singer Stan Rogers led a revival in the Seventies, with his debut album Fogarty’s Cove dealing almost exclusively with the theme of life in maritime Canada. This included the original song “Barrett’s Privateers”, performed in the style of a traditional shanty and filled with authentic details of privateering during the late 18th Century. Rogers also once covered “Leave Her, Johnny”, traditionally the shanty that was performed at the very end of a journey, as the ship was berthed and cleaned. Frank Thomas Bullen wrote in his 1914 collection, Songs of Sea Labour, that “to sing it before the last day or so was almost tantamount to mutiny”.
James Revell Carr, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Kentucky and a scholar on maritime song, tells the Los Angeles Times that the sea shanty and sea song formats are ideal for TikTok.
“They’re kind of bawdy,” he says. “They’re kind of risqué. There’s something for the kid in you to get titillated by. And they’re just energetic – they’re used for working and so they’re meant to pump you up and get you pulling on that line or heaving that capstan around.”
Not to mention the fact that these shanties also capture the thrill of travelling, which made all that hard work worth it. “New England sailors broke out of their shells when they got to the Pacific,” Carr says. “Sailors said they would hang their conscience on Cape Horn because they could be whoever they wanted to be once they got to the West Coast. It encouraged them to be more or musical, more creative or, you know, just to be more cosmopolitan.”
Jonathan “JD” Darley, a founding member of The Longest Johns, suggests there is a “perfect storm” of elements that give sea shanties and songs their appeal, but one of the biggest draws is the community feeling these songs inspire. “There’s a lot of easy repetition you can join in with,” he tells The Independent. “The feeling of lifting your voice in song with other people is incredibly unique. The closest comparison is a football chant or being at a club where everyone’s singing along to the same song. You’re there in the moment, having a great time.”
It’s not surprising, then, that shanties have struck such a chord at a time when we’re all stuck at home. They provide a communal feel, even when we feel far apart from our friends and loved ones. And that driving rhythm provides an energy and optimism that might just be strong enough to keep us cheerful through lockdown.