Sea Shanty TikTok Meme, Explained


In the last week of 2020, Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postman and aspiring musician, shared a video of himself on TikTok singing a shanty song called “Soon May the Wellerman Come”. He didn’t expect anything to happen, but the app has the ability to turn dusty esotericism into viral gold.

In fact, his old video has been shared and duetted thousands of times in the past two weeks: by professional singers and instrumentalists, marine enthusiasts, electronic beatmakers, memers, a Kermit the Frog doll, and much more.

“Without TikTok, I’d be so bored and claustrophobic,” Evans said of Zoom. “But it can make you feel like you have a group. You can easily collaborate with other people and make friends. “

One of the original purposes of the Sea Shanty was to create a sense of community and common purpose. On merchant ships in the 1700s and 1800s, a shantyman led sailors at work in songs, distracting them from their work, enlivening their duties, and establishing a rhythm.

“There would be different shanties associated with the different types of work and duties on board,” said Gerry Smyth, professor of Irish cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University and author of “Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas”. ”

According to Mr. Smyth’s research, shanties were designed to perform specific tasks and speed them up. “For example, if you’re hauling sails, the cabin was designed for the physical exertion required to do it,” he said. “Everyone would pull at the same time,” he added, stimulated by the rhythm of the song.

The earliest seaman’s songs could be as old as seafaring. They use the impulse to share stories in oral literature that is even older.

Singing is fun and has lifted the sailors’ spirits, said Mr. Smyth. The songs also provided a common language for multinational crews.

“This collaborative aesthetic really goes back to a very ancient time,” said Smyth. “When we sit around the campfire, we talk about hunting. We achieve identity through community, through the underlying beat of the drum. “In these ancient storytelling traditions, everyone knew the story and played a role in the telling.

Other work songs share the same common storytelling impulse. This is particularly evident in the call-and-response tradition of Afro-American folk songs and spirituals, which was based on the democratic participation practices of public life south of the Sahara.

For seaman’s shops, the passage of time has led to some revisions. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, scholars who collected sea shanties cleaned up the texts, many of which were quite “cheeky,” said Mr. Smyth. These collectors bowdlerized the songs, replaced “whores” with “beautiful girls”, removed rough language and softened drunken nights in the pub.

In the versions truest to the life and language of seafarers, these ballads centered on what Mr. Smyth calls “the basic coordinates of the shanty imagination”: arrival in port and return to sea. Outside in the vast blue they found a romanticized life full of toil and violence. Back on land, pimps, prostitutes and drunken sailors could be seen in their yarns, who lost their wages at the bar and playing dice in the alleys.

The recently popular “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” reported on by the band The Longest Johns in 2018, skips such naughty tales in favor of a “moby-dick” -like whaling adventure. The subject was real: the Weller Brothers whaling company had an outpost in Otago, New Zealand. The lyrics show sailors harpooning a whale and lifting it onto the ship for slaughter.

“That fountain could have been a cut,” or a song men sang while slaughtering a whale, said Michael P. Dyer, the lake curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

This particular task was chaotic; Harvesting parts of the whale – oil to light lamps and use in cosmetics, beards for whalebone corsets, tongue for food – was hard work. The “tongue” mentioned in the texts, according to Mr. Dyer, refers to removing the tongue, the most edible part of the whale.

Some believe that the line “bring us sugar, tea and rum” might refer to whaling’s share of the Atlantic triangular slave trade. (Accordingly, various commentators suggested that the meme has lost its appeal.) Others believe the term refers to another ship that comes to resupply the whalers on their long hunt.

“Wellerman isn’t exactly a shanty,” said David Coffin, a folk musician and music educator in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a whaling song with the beat of a shanty, he said, but its purpose is that of a ballad. Tell a story so as not to help the sailors keep time.

In any case, the shape, said Mr Smyth, is malleable, which could explain the thousands of riffs, duets, and adaptations that have spread online. Some people have even started to cover popular songs – like “All Star” by Smash Mouth – at a sea shanty cadence.

“It’s not the beauty of the song that people get,” said Mr. Coffin. “It’s the energy.”

“That’s one of the things I love about shanties,” he added. “The accessibility. You don’t have to be a trained singer to sing on it. You shouldn’t sing pretty. “