When I woke up last Friday morning, I realized I had several messages. All of them were links to a TikTok video of several guys singing a song, a sea shanty from the 19th century called “Wellerman,” using TikTok’s duet feature.
It was not the first sea shanty I’d seen on TikTok. It wasn’t even the first performance of “Wellerman” I’d seen — in the past month or so, spurred by a Scottish musician named Nathan Evans and others, sea shanties have become increasingly popular on TikTok and then shared widely on other platforms. “Wellerman,” the song that’s gotten especially big in the past few days, has now been remixed and performed by other singers, and other sea shanties have started to pop up. My favorite addition is the sea-shanty reaction video, particularly this one, which has the caption “when I hand my brother the aux”:
The magnetic thing about that reaction TikTok is the way the dubious brother gets pulled in. First he’s skeptical of “Wellerman” and then he’s entertained by how much his brother likes it. By the end he’s all in, singing along with the refrains and offering an “oooOO” of harmony as his brother sings the verses. As with many of the best TikToks, it’s the naked, transparent sincerity that really sells the video. They are both so in the song by the end, singing along happily even though it’s an ancient song and the word Wellerman has been lost to history. (According to a few different sources, a Wellerman” is an employee of the 19th-century Australian whaling company the Weller Bros., and the song is about company ships that would arrive to resupply whaling vessels.)
On the surface, it’s a little weird that digital culture in 2021 would become suddenly obsessed with 200-year-old folk songs about men on whaling boats. They sound like prehistoric oddities, which is part of the appeal. Simplistic in structure, they are deliberately repetitive and full of ideas and references that feel very, very far from life right now. Aside from the word Wellerman, they’re full of harpoons and pierheads and the specifics of butchering whales; the most recognizable lyrics are lines about “rounding the Cape” and the love of bonny brown-haired lasses.
Sea shanties are also resiliently uncool. They’re songs about whaling and strong winds, and they sound the way a bowl of New England clam chowder looks: imprecise, sort of lumpy, and, not to put too fine a point on it, very white. There’s some overlap between sea shanties and African American spirituals that deserves a lot more attention, but the default picture of the sea shanty as a genre is a bunch of white European sailors bellowing “haul away Joe” in harmony. The shock of getting lit to that is what we see register on the face of the dubious TikTok brother. “This? Really? This?”
The sea shanty seems like the strangest possible pick for this year’s new, hot music trend, but as a longtime sea-shanty fan (what can I say, I’m the type who read Horatio Hornblower novels in high school), I’m here to tell you that sea shanties make so much sense for this moment, right now. They’re songs with simple, blunt rhythms, meant to be easy to learn and easy to sing along with while doing the hard physical work of sailing a large fishing vessel. One person is the song leader, setting the pace and singing the verses, but the engine of the song is in the repeating chorus that everyone sings together over and over again. They are unifying, survivalist songs, designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat.
Right now, it’s not safe to gather in groups. Every news story is about division, deadlock, anger, and the massive gulf between the left and the right. We’re all stuck staring at tiny screens in our own tiny individual boxes, desperately wanting to sing loudly into a stranger’s face while knowing that singing loudly into a stranger’s face is incredibly dangerous right now. Maybe it’s a coincidence that millions of TikTokers are finding delight in a centuries-old music genre meant to bind separate bodies together into one shared, cooperative action. Maybe it’s just because “Wellerman” is a great, boisterous bop of a song in any century.
But I don’t think so. Sea shanties are not the first pandemic example of a virtual but collective musical experience that has ascended to the big trend of the day. This past fall, there was the Ratatouille musical; earlier last summer, there was a wave of love for two brothers who make reaction videos as they listen to popular pop songs for the first time; and the spring shut-in made way for Verzuz. Those 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.
So on a grand scale, I’m really moved by the sudden attention to sea shanties. It’s hard to think of a more unexpectedly appropriate musical form for a bunch of people yearning for physical (and political and spiritual) connection. And for me, personally, I am thrilled to welcome our new sea-shanty overlords. There are so many more songs that deserve viral TikTok fame! I’m crossing my fingers for “Blow the Man Down.”