Well, less than two weeks into 2021 and the surprises just keep coming. Among the more pleasant ones so far: The popular app TikTok seems to have been taken over by sea shanties. Yes, sea shanties -- those catchy, sometimes bawdy songs of the sea. Just a few measures into one of these ditties and you can almost picture a ragtag group of sailors hoisting the jib in time with the rhythmic pounding of the shanty.
Sometimes it’s hard to trace something like this, but it seems the sea shanty’s sudden foray into pop culture started with a TikTok video back in December. Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postman and singer, sits at a desk and sings “The Wellerman,” his fist rhythmically pounding the desk.
She had not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore
The captain called all hands and swore
He'd take that whale in tow
Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguin' is done
We'll take our leave and go
That performance struck a chord and inspired TikTok users to add their voices and instruments to Evans’ original video, creating a sea shanty symphony on the app.
By January, sea shanty started trending on TikTok and Twitter. Clearly, many users of both apps were discovering the catchy songs for the first time. So, what are sea shanties, and why are they enjoying their moment in the spotlight? According to Nathan Rumney, supervisor of interpretation, theater and music at Mystic Seaport, shanties were work songs, a way to get sailors to sync up.
“Many of the jobs that you have on board, like hoisting an anchor, walking around a capstan or hoisting up sails have a song, or a type of song associated with it to help coordinate the effort,” explained Rumney. “Because if you get everyone pulling at the same time, it’s essentially a ‘force magnifier’ as the shantymen would say.”
Beyond being a force magnifier, shanties had other benefits for the sailors as well.
“As much as anything, shanties were a way to kind of keep your mind occupied, and just kind of help your mood when you were doing a job that could take hours that you’ve probably done many, many times before and is physically hard and mind-numbingly dull,” said Erik Ingmundson, Mystic Seaport’s director of interpretation.
Shantymen, the sailors in charge of leading the shanties, were well aware of how these songs served as distraction and entertainment, and they often wove intricate stories into their songs.
“They would get to certain points in the story, and they would make it up, you know, either they’ve heard it before or they ad-libbed, and the sailors want to hear more,” said Rumney. “Sometimes you want to get them to that point where they want the work to go on a little longer so they can hear the rest of that song.”
Sea shanties exist today through oral tradition, so little is known about who actually wrote the songs, but the subject matter of the shanties seems to fall under specific categories.
“One common theme is that your mind is wandering and that it goes into the gutter, you know?” said Ingmundson. “There’s lots of stories about women they met between voyages, or someone they long to see again, that kind of thing. Sometimes they feel like a form of venting, because they are talking about a captain or a mate that they really can’t stand.”
“Drinking and having a good time at the local establishments and the dangers involved therein, sort of as a cautionary tale, those are out there, too,” said Rumney. “Anything the mindset of an 18- to 24-year-old boy is going to be thinking about, you are going to have a shanty about it somewhere.”
So, we’ve established what sea shanties are, now onto the tougher question: Why are they going viral right now on social media?
“I would say probably having a song that everyone can know, that’s really easy to learn, that everyone can join in on, and feel like they are part of the group,” said Rumney. “That would be the appeal in my opinion.”
Ingmundson said it could be that popular culture has already been introduced to sea shanties, whether people know it or not.
“Shanties have been featured in some really popular video games, like “Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag,” he said. ”That game in particular features a lot of sea music and shanties. That, I think, has piqued some people’s interest. I think any type of music that has a rebellious edge to it is fun and appealing to people. And sea music and shanties certainly meet that criteria.”
The 19th century’s version of punk rock.
Now, for those of you who are declaring 2021 “the year of the sea shanty” -- and yes, that is a thing on Twitter right now, there is good news. Mystic Seaport will hold a “Chantey Blast” -- a virtual shanty sing-along on Saturday, Feb. 6 from 1 to 3 p.m.