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 “Quickly Might the Wellerman Come.” He wasn’t anticipating something to occur, however the app has a means of turning dusty esoterica into viral gold.
Certainly, over the past 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 through Zoom. “However it may give you a way of getting a bunch. You’ll be able to collaborate with different individuals and make buddies so simply.”
What Is a Sea Shanty?
One of many unique functions of the ocean shanty was to create a way of neighborhood and shared goal. On service provider marine vessels within the 1700s and 1800s, a shantyman would lead sailors in tune as they labored, distracting them from their toil, enlivening their duties and establishing a rhythm.
“The totally different sorts of onboard work and chores would have totally different shanties connected to them,” mentioned Gerry Smyth, a professor of Irish cultural historical past at Liverpool John Moores College and the creator of “Sailor Tune: The Shanties and Ballads of the Excessive Seas.”
Based on Mr. Smyth’s analysis, shanties advanced to match and expedite specific duties. “When you had been hauling sail, for instance, the shanty was designed across the bodily effort required to realize that,” he mentioned. “Everyone would pull on the similar time,” he added, cued by the rhythm of the tune.
The earliest sea shanties may very well 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 provided a standard language for multinational crews.
“This communitarian aesthetic, it actually does return to a really historical time,” Mr. Smyth mentioned. “After we’re sitting across the campfire, we’re speaking in regards to 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 an element 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 folks 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 accumulating sea shanties cleaned up the lyrics, an excessive amount of which had 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 targeted 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 dropping 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 tune lyrics function sailors harpooning a whale and hoisting it to the ship for butchery.
“This effectively might have been a cutting-in shanty,” or a tune that males sung whereas they slaughtered a whale, mentioned Michael P. Dyer, the maritime curator on the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.
That individual activity was messy; the harvesting of whale components — oil to gentle lamps and use in cosmetics, baleen for whalebone corsets, tongue for meals — was onerous labor. The “tonguing” that’s talked about in lyrics refers to eradicating the tongue, probably the most edible a part of the whale, based on Mr. Dyer.
As for the road “to deliver us sugar and tea and rum,” some imagine that it might check with whaling’s half within the triangle slave commerce of the Atlantic. (Accordingly, numerous commenters prompt that the meme had misplaced its allure.) 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 folks musician and music educator in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a whaling tune with the beat of a shanty, he mentioned, however its goal 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 overlaying fashionable songs — like “All Star,” by Smash Mouth — in a sea-shanty cadence.
“It’s not the fantastic thing about the tune 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 educated singer to sing on it. You’re not presupposed to sing fairly.”