In the ultimate week of 2020, Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postman and aspiring musician, shared a video of himself on TikTok, singing a sea shanty known as “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” He wasn’t anticipating something to occur, however the app has a method of turning dusty esoterica into viral gold.
Indeed, during the last two weeks, his old-timey video has been shared and duetted hundreds of occasions: by skilled vocalists and instrumentalists, maritime fanatics, digital beatmakers, memers, a Kermit the Frog puppet, and extra.
“If it wasn’t for TikTok, I would be so bored and claustrophobic,” Mr. Evans stated by way of Zoom. “But it can give you a sense of having a group. You can collaborate with other people and make friends so easily.”
What Is a Sea Shanty?
One of the unique functions of the ocean shanty was to create a way of group and shared objective. On service provider marine vessels within the 1700s and 1800s, a shantyman would lead sailors in tune as they labored, distracting them from their toil, enlivening their duties and establishing a rhythm.
“The different kinds of onboard work and chores would have different shanties attached to them,” stated Gerry Smyth, a professor of Irish cultural historical past at Liverpool John Moores University and the writer of “Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas.”
According to Mr. Smyth’s analysis, shanties advanced to match and expedite specific duties. “If you were hauling sail, for example, the shanty was designed around the physical effort required to achieve that,” he stated. “Everybody would pull at the same time,” he added, cued by the rhythm of the tune.
The earliest sea shanties may very well be as previous as seafaring itself. They faucet into the story-sharing impulse of oral literature, which is even older nonetheless.
Singing is enjoyable, and it lifted the sailors’ spirits, Mr. Smyth stated. The songs additionally provided a standard language for multinational crews.
“This communitarian aesthetic, it really does go back to a very ancient time,” Mr. Smyth stated. “When we’re sitting around the campfire, we’re talking about the hunt. We achieve identity through community, through the underlying beat on the drum.” In these historic storytelling traditions, everybody knew the story and performed a component in telling it.
Other working songs have run on the identical shared storytelling impulse. This is very obvious within the call-and-response custom of African-American people songs and spirituals, which drew on the democratic participation practices of sub-Saharan public life.
For sea shanties, the passage of time has led to some revision. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, students gathering sea shanties cleaned up the lyrics, an excessive amount of which had been fairly “bawdy,” Mr. Smyth stated. These collectors bowdlerized the songs, changing “whores” with “fair maidens,” eradicating coarse language and firming down drunken nights on the pub.
In the variations that remained truest to the sailors’ lives and language, these ballads centered on what Mr. Smyth calls “the fundamental coordinates of the shanty imagination”: arriving in port and returning to the ocean. Out within the huge blue, they discovered a romanticized lifetime of toil and violence. Back on dry land, their yarns starred pimps, prostitutes and inebriated seamen shedding their wages on the bar and in back-alley cube video games.
About That Shanty
The just lately popularized “Soon May the Wellerman Come” — which the band the Longest Johns lined in 2018 — leaves out such naughty narratives in favor of a “Moby-Dick”-like whaling journey. Its topic was actual: the Weller brothers’ whaling firm owned an outpost in Otago, New Zealand. The tune lyrics characteristic sailors harpooning a whale and hoisting it to the ship for butchery.
“This well could have been a cutting-in shanty,” or a tune that males sung whereas they slaughtered a whale, stated Michael P. Dyer, the maritime curator on the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.
That specific activity was messy; the harvesting of whale components — oil to gentle lamps and use in cosmetics, baleen for whalebone corsets, tongue for meals — was exhausting labor. The “tonguing” that’s talked about in lyrics refers to eradicating the tongue, probably the most edible a part of the whale, in accordance with Mr. Dyer.
As for the road “to bring us sugar and tea and rum,” some consider that it could seek advice from whaling’s half within the triangle slave commerce of the Atlantic. (Accordingly, numerous commenters recommended that the meme had misplaced its attraction.) Others consider the phrase refers to a different ship coming to resupply the whalers on their lengthy hunt.
“‘Wellerman’ is not really a shanty,” stated David Coffin, a people musician and music educator in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a whaling tune with the beat of a shanty, he stated, however its objective is that of a ballad — to inform a narrative, to not assist sailors maintain time.
In any case, the shape, Mr. Smyth stated, is malleable, which may clarify the hundreds of riffs, duets and variations which have proliferated on-line. Some individuals have even begun protecting common songs — like “All Star,” by Smash Mouth — in a sea-shanty cadence.
“It’s not the beauty of the song that gets people,” Mr. Coffin stated. “It’s the energy.”
“That’s one of the things I love about sea shanties,” he added. “The accessibility. You don’t have to be a trained singer to sing on it. You’re not supposed to sing pretty.”