Within the closing 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 referred to as “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” He wasn’t anticipating something to occur, however the app has a means of turning dusty esoterica into viral gold.
Certainly, 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 might be so bored and claustrophobic,” Mr. Evans mentioned by way of Zoom. “However it can provide you a way of getting a bunch. You’ll be able to collaborate with different individuals and make buddies so simply.”
One of many authentic functions of the ocean shanty was to create a way of neighborhood and shared objective. On service provider marine vessels within the 1700s and 1800s, a shantyman would lead sailors in music as they labored, distracting them from their toil, enlivening their duties and establishing a rhythm.
“The completely different sorts of onboard work and chores would have completely different shanties connected to them,” mentioned Gerry Smyth, a professor of Irish cultural historical past at Liverpool John Moores College and the writer of “Sailor Music: The Shanties and Ballads of the Excessive Seas.”
Based on Mr. Smyth’s analysis, shanties developed to match and expedite specific duties. “If you happen to have been hauling sail, for instance, the shanty was designed across the bodily effort required to realize that,” he mentioned. “All people would pull on the similar time,” he added, cued by the rhythm of the music.
The earliest sea shanties could possibly 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 mentioned. The songs additionally supplied a typical language for multinational crews.
“This communitarian aesthetic, it actually does return to a really historical time,” Mr. Smyth mentioned. “Once we’re sitting across the campfire, we’re speaking concerning the hunt. We obtain identification by way of neighborhood, by way of the underlying beat on the drum.” In these historical storytelling traditions, everybody knew the story and performed a component in telling it.
Different working songs have run on the identical shared storytelling impulse. That is particularly 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. Within the Victorian and Edwardian eras, students gathering sea shanties cleaned up the lyrics, quite a lot of which have been fairly “bawdy,” Mr. Smyth mentioned. These collectors bowdlerized the songs, changing “whores” with “truthful maidens,” eradicating coarse language and firming down drunken nights on the pub.
Within the variations that remained truest to the sailors’ lives and language, these ballads centered on what Mr. Smyth calls “the elemental coordinates of the shanty creativeness”: arriving in port and returning to the ocean. Out within the huge blue, they discovered a romanticized lifetime of toil and violence. Again 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 lately popularized “Quickly Might the Wellerman Come” — which the band the Longest Johns coated 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 music lyrics function sailors harpooning a whale and hoisting it to the ship for butchery.
“This properly might have been a cutting-in shanty,” or a music that males sung whereas they slaughtered a whale, mentioned Michael P. Dyer, the maritime curator on the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.
That specific process was messy; the harvesting of whale components — oil to mild lamps and use in cosmetics, baleen for whalebone corsets, tongue for meals — was arduous labor. The “tonguing” that’s talked about in lyrics refers to eradicating the tongue, essentially the most edible a part of the whale, in accordance with Mr. Dyer.
As for the road “to convey us sugar and tea and rum,” some imagine that it could seek advice from whaling’s half within the triangle slave commerce of the Atlantic. (Accordingly, varied commenters recommended that the meme had misplaced its attraction.) Others imagine the phrase refers to a different ship coming to resupply the whalers on their lengthy hunt.
“‘Wellerman’ will not be actually a shanty,” mentioned David Coffin, a people musician and music educator in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a whaling music with the beat of a shanty, he mentioned, however its objective is that of a ballad — to inform a narrative, to not assist sailors preserve time.
In any case, the shape, Mr. Smyth mentioned, is malleable, which might clarify the hundreds of riffs, duets and variations which have proliferated on-line. Some individuals have even begun protecting well-liked songs — like “All Star,” by Smash Mouth — in a sea-shanty cadence.
“It’s not the fantastic thing about the music that will get individuals,” Mr. Coffin mentioned. “It’s the power.”
“That’s one of many issues I really like about sea shanties,” he added. “The accessibility. You don’t should be a skilled singer to sing on it. You’re not imagined to sing fairly.”