What exactly is a sea shanty? Any devoted TikTok viewer can imagine my confusion when I received a message from a friend asking me such a question.
I have always loved a good shanty, but I have been regrettably unaware the music genre was in the midst of a resurgence.
For those who were not born in the 17th century, a sea shanty is a traditional chant once sung by merchant sailors to help keep them synchronized as they worked together to raise heavy sails and prepare their ships. The rhythmic, repetitive and easy-to-learn tunes boosted efficiency and encouraged morale during sailors’ arduous journeys. Although the sea shanty became obsolete by the late 1800s because of the popularization of the steam-powered boat, the tunes remain relics of the time period.
The revival of the sea shanty can be traced to a TikTok video from 26-year-old Scottish postal worker Nathan Evans, who posted a cover of the song “Wellerman” at the end of December 2020. The video blew up, garnering over 9 million views on his own account and spreading rapidly across the app as artists dueted the video and harmonized with him. The song has even been remixed into an EDM version, which I will undoubtedly play at the first Georgetown party after the pandemic.
Evans’ TikTok account now has over 700,000 followers, and he has been interviewed by BBC and The New York Times since he posted his video Dec. 27. Evans’ cover was based on a 2018 recording by an English a cappella folk group, the Longest Johns, who have also recently seen an explosion in their listenership.
“Wellerman” was popular among whalers in New Zealand in the late 1800s, and according to music experts, it is more accurately a ballad or a sailing song rather than a sea shanty. The song rose to fame, however, with the hashtag #seashanty, and Google Trends recently reported that the phrase sea shanty has been searched more times in the first month of 2021 than ever in the history of the internet.
So, why has the song blown up? Many TikTok trends owe themselves purely to randomness, but could the genre itself be striking a chord with Generation Z? This, of course, being the generation born between 1997 and 2012.
Catchy as it may be, the song’s chorus, “Soon may the Wellerman come / To bring us sugar and tea and rum,” is hardly relatable to the average person in 2021. Who is the Wellerman? Do they wear masks? Questions abound!
The term wellerman describes individuals who worked for a company owned by the Weller brothers that sold provisions to whalers. As dated as its context may be, at its core, “Wellerman” remains a song of hope for better days and a longing for respite.
I personally spend a debilitating amount of time on TikTok, and I’m not sure if I believe the general audience of the app has such a precise reason for liking the 15-second clip. The entire concept of bringing back the sea shanty is funny in itself, and the genre is eclectic enough to be memorable. It doesn’t seem to me that the genre has any real staying power outside of this brief trend, and I don’t see too many of us attending shanty festivals in a post-pandemic world.
Why exactly #seashanty went viral is a mystery as deep and murky as the TikTok algorithm. In the middle of the ocean that is the pandemic, in the turbulent seas of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment and civil unrest in the Capitol, perhaps Gen Z sees itself in the songs of young sailors, hoping for the end of the journey.