Issue of the day: The return of the sea shanty


THEY are songs that were traditionally sung by sailors while performing laborious tasks on board large sailing ships, but sea shanties have moved with the times and are now going viral on social media.

Sea shanties?
The rhythmic songs were usually sung to accompany work tasks on merchant vessels, such as scrubbing the deck back or raising the sails. They are believed to date from the early 1800s, a time when ships’ crews were sizeable enough to permit hauling a rope while marching along the deck.

Call and response?
The shanties are typically “call and response” songs, with one singer – the shantyman – taking the lead and everyone else responding with the chorus. There may be dozens of varying verses and versions on the go, but the tune and rhythm remain the same.

They kept spirits high?
In the 1937 book, “The Background of Sea Shanties”, author Harold Whates said: “The purpose of a hauling shanty was rhythm to the task of extracting just that last ounce from men habitually weary, overworked and underfed.”

What will we do with the drunken sailor?
That’s probably the most well-known example that managed to keep its relevance even when the songs declined amid the rise of clipper ships and smaller crews. It was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the 1900s and remains one of the best-known sea shanties among mainstream audiences.

What’s happening now?
Royal Mail postman Nathan Evans, 26, from Airdrie, has found himself in the global spotlight thanks to his TikTok videos of him singing the old sailor songs. He has now been branded the originator of “Sea Shanty TikTok”, racking up millions of views of his versions of the traditional songs.

That’s the hashtag people are using to search for sea shanties, with Mr Evans’ most popular song so far being “The Wellerman”, a New Zealand folk song about whale hunting in the 1800s, which has amassed close to 6 million views on TikTok. 

It’s rising up the charts?
A version of The Wellerman by Bristol based, acapella folk music band, the Longest Johns, has just entered Spotify’s top 200 most-streamed songs in the entire US and is rising up the streaming charts.

Sea shanties are so 2021?
Social media users have declared 2021 the “year of the sea shanty” and with nearly half a million followers on TikTok so far, the Scots singer is likely to agree. He  told the BBC he is now “no longer a postman”, having been “inundated with opportunities”. He said: “It is crazy and has gone much further than I ever thought it would go.” He is now going to record some sea shanties for official release.


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