Sea shanties have enjoyed a recent burst of popularity due to some versions going viral on the video sharing platform TikTok. Notably, a December 2020 recording of traditional whaling ballad “The Wellerman,” started by Scotsman Nathan Evans, exploded in popularity after other TikTok users added harmonies to his solo video, and later one user added dance-music beats. At time of writing, it’s been watched almost 11 million times.
Anyone whose interest in sailor songs and shanties goes back much further than the recent trend should welcome this opportunity for younger generations to get interested in the traditional genre, and hopefully folk music more broadly. Speaking personally, I’ve been attracted to sailor songs for the roughly twenty years I’ve been playing traditional folk music. My YouTube channel contains 26 sailor songs arranged in a playlist, and my latest album, released in Nov. 2020 is called Sailor Songs, consisting exclusively of songs on the subject, including one original. So, I guess I was ahead of the trend, though I was happy to jump on the bandwagon and learn “The Wellerman,” which I promptly posted to my YouTube channel. Why not capitalize on the current buzz, especially when it’s a worthy song?
But why do so many people seem drawn to the sailor song/shanty genre? First, a point of clarification: not all the songs going around are technically shanties (including “The Wellerman”). I’m no expert on the subject, but a shanty is a type of simple work song designed to help co-ordinate workers on a ship while doing tasks like pulling ropes (for example, “Haul Away, Joe”). So, not all sailor songs are shanties. But, for most people, that doesn’t really matter, precisely because the age of sailing ships is long over. Sailor songs or shanties—call them what you will.
But, again, why do these songs attract us? Why would people who live in modern cities and may never set foot on an ocean-going boat relate to songs of the sea? In a sense the same question could be asked about cowboy songs in the Western tradition, and the answers are similar.
There are several appeals:
1. Something new and completely different from our modern lives. When we grow weary of our complex, noisy and technologically dependent lives, exploring the experience of earlier people through song may offer interest and variety. It’s the same reason we might go see a movie on the subject. Sailing involves danger and adventure, which can attract the modern listener.
2. Sailor songs are musically “good.” This one’s subjective of course, but a lot of the songs have interesting melodies and also lend themselves well to multiple harmonies (singing them in a group was the original idea, after all). Musically, they’re also worlds away from what we hear on the radio now, so there’s novelty involved. Finally, the songs are generally easy for “regular folk” to sing—no fancy conservatory training required.
3. We can relate to the struggles of sailors. Contrary to point one above, there is something in the songs that we can relate to on a deep level. The songs talk of the hardships of work, and the pleasures of our periods away from it. True, most of us will never haul sail on a ship, but we can relate to how hard life can be, and savour the moments when it’s going well. Sailors on the sea are at the mercy of huge, powerful forces (the sea and its weather) and we modern listeners can identify with that. The powerful forces that shape our lives may have changed with the centuries (though the power of natural forces remains), but the need to adapt and deal with external forces hasn’t. As such, sailor songs can help us understand past generations, and better understand our position in history.
What do you think? How did you first hear traditional sailor songs, and what do they mean to you? Please leave a comment below.
Thoughts on music and performing by Canadian singer-songwriter Jesse Ferguson.