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Sea shanties are having a moment right now. Here’s why

The centuries-old sailing songs have recently made a resurgence on TikTok

SHARE Sea shanties are having a moment right now. Here’s why
In this photo made Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, the schooner Mary Day sits at anchor in the morning fog off South Brooksville, Maine. The 90-foot Mary Day, which is celebrating its 50th season, is the first schooner in the Maine windjammer fleet to be built spec

In this photo made Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, the schooner Mary Day sits at anchor in the morning fog off South Brooksville, Maine. The 90-foot Mary Day, which is celebrating its 50th season, is the first schooner in the Maine windjammer fleet to be built spec

Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

TikTok apparently has an uncanny ability to pull articles from the depths of obscurity and place them at the center of popular culture. The app did so with “Ratatouille: The Musical” in 2020, and it’s happening again 2021, this time with age-old sea shanties.

Not sure what those are? Let me explain.

What are sea shanties?

The Cut defines sea shanties as work songs that were historically sung aboard old-timey vessels whose operation hinged on the simultaneous actions of sailors. The songs have been bellowed since “at least the mid-1400s,” according to the site, and they were practiced to ensure everybody “pushed or pulled, at precisely the same time.”

How did they become popular again?

According to Polygon, the recent phenomenon began with a simple video that Scottish singer Nathan Evans posted on TikTok of himself singing a shanty titled “Wellerman.” Evans’ song’s catchy chorus made the video an instant hit. Its popularity started to snowball as other TikTok users employed the app’s duet function to harmonize and sing along. In a matter of days, the song was everywhere.

Wait, what’s a ‘Wellerman’ anyway?

In an interview with Daily Dot, Andy Yates, a member of the British folk group The Longest Johns, explained the meaning behind the “Wellerman’s” lyrics. He said:

It’s an old New Zealand sea shanty, a whaling song. ... The Wellerman itself refers to a company called the Weller Bros. (who) would supply whaling ships around that area. Which is what the whole chorus is about.

So, why are shanties having a moment right now?

David Robinson, another member of The Longest Johns, shared his thoughts on the song’s recent burst of popularity. He said (via Daily Dot):

I think (the song) has always been communal in nature. Right from the beginning (shanties) were made so people could work in time with each other. They had to be able to join in. I have a theory about why the ‘Wellerman’ is quite so popular at this moment: it’s a song about people in a tough situation waiting for the hope of someone bringing supplies. The Wellerman were the (British supermarket chain) Morrisons of yesteryear.

Leigh Cowart, an author and science journalist, suggests that the songs are becoming more popular because they appeal to people’s yearning for behavioral synchrony amid the ongoing pandemic.

Vulture pointed out that sea shanties are not the first virtual musical experience to take over the internet since the start of the pandemic. In addition to sea shanties and the “Ratatouille” musical, the past year has also brought virtual Verzus battles and televised family singalongs. In the article, Kathryn VanArendonk wrote:

(These) phenomena come out of a hunger for the distinct, powerful way music can make people feel connected to one another. Sea shanties are just a more direct, musically explicit version of that desire. They’re easy for lots of people to learn very quickly, and once everyone has learned the pattern, the sea shanty turns every participant into one small part of a collective whole.