Of all the viral trends to launch 2021, sea shanties seemed the most far-fetched. But here they are, in viral TikTok videos, on BBC Radio, and now, thanks to the Bristol-based group The Longest Johns, in the Official Charts.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” says their singer Jonathan “JD” Darley, of all the sudden attention. Their song “Wellerman”, an acapella cover of a New Zealand whaling song from the 19th century, has just placed at No 37 in the UK Top 40. Fans are frantically trawling Google for more sea shanties to enjoy, while Spotify reports a 7,000 per cent increase in streams of The Longest Johns’ song. Mixing bawdy humour with jaunty harmonies and driving rhythms, "Wellerman" is emblematic of an, ahem, fleeting craze – popping up everywhere from Bristol to Barcelona – that pays homage to songs composed by sailors centuries ago to keep their spirits up while at sea.
“It’s very much a perfect storm,” Darley, 31, says. “We’ve believed for a long time that folk music and shanties would be way more popular if more people were exposed to it.” The Longest Johns, whose members got together while working at a performing arts charity, have a knack for finding creative ways to reach new audiences. In 2018, they joined Sea of Thieves, a video game where players can make their characters trade items, fight, talk… and even sing to one another. A YouTube video of The Longest Johns regaling an American player with “Wellerman” while they blow up pirate ships now has more than a million views.
“The community of folk music and shanties is one of the most unique and special things,” Darley says. “That feeling of lifting your voice in song with other people around you is incredibly unique. The closest things we can think of that scan are football chants.” The sense of community that sea songs inspire is precisely what brought the group together in the first place. Darley, a fan and now friend of the Cornish singing group The Fisherman’s Friends, found himself discussing them with his soon-to-be bandmates at a friend’s BBQ. “We tried singing one of their songs, and it sounded good. Then we did an open mic night, recorded videos… and that got us invited to festivals around the UK.”
Inspired by artists such as the late Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers, Darley and The Longest Johns have spent years honing their skill for spinning a good yarn. Much of the appeal of “Wellerman” is in the delivery, from the dramatic baritone hums to the hearty bellowing of the chorus. Each member understands that these songs have characters, and it’s up to them to play them properly. Darley agrees that this is a particularly big draw for younger pop music fans. “In the charts, songs are saying something but not in a way that makes you think,” he says. “It’s words to fill a space. But there, there’s an actual narrative, you listen to find out what happens next, like you would if you were reading a book or watching a TV show. You’re pulled into that space, thinking, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
I wonder if there’s any resentment towards Nathan Evans, the 26-year-old postman from Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, whose surging, rhythmic a cappella music went viral on TikTok, kick-starting the recent shanty trend. The Longest Johns may have been around for a lot longer, but they insist they’re happy for him. “It’s incredible,” Darley says. “The whole thing has taken on this new life and it’s amazing. I can’t wait to see what it brings to the shanty community as a result.” Besides, The Longest Johns are getting plenty of attention themselves, including from (if my sources are correct) a number of record labels.
While many of the songs lumped into the sea shanty renaissance aren’t technically shanties at all, the “crossover and repetition” nature of them makes a perfect fit for social media and its meme culture. Where one user might perform a shanty on their own, another could take that video and add a clip of themselves accompanying on the violin or doing a dance. It’s a way of feeling involved at a time when we all feel far apart from one another. “The lyrics are some of the least important things about shanties,” Darley says. “It’s more in the rhythm and joy you get from harmonising with a group of people.”
New fans searching for more of this type of music online are likely to come across songs of a decidedly un-PC nature, among them “Fire Down Below” and “What Shall We Do (with the Drunken Sailor)”. Darley says he’s encountered fellow folk singers who are staunchly against changing lyrics to suit contemporary listeners, but The Longest Johns are not among them. “There’s a lot of sexism and racism [in certain songs] from the era,” he says. “There are schools of thought that say, ‘That’s the history of it, preserve it exactly as it is.’ We don’t think that should be the case.” In the band’s view, folk music exists today precisely because it’s been permitted to evolve and grow over the centuries: “We want to keep putting life into this music.”
“Wellerman” by The Longest Johns is out now