A sea shanty expert explains why the song going viral on TikTok isn't actually a sea shanty

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Chris Stokel-Walker
·5 min read
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sea shanty tiktok
Sea shanties, particularly "The Wellerman," are going viral on TikTok. @nathanevanss/@strong_promises/TikTok
  • People on the internet are obsessed with "sea shanty TikTok" after a song called "The Wellerman" went viral.

  • A sea shanty expert says the song isn't really a sea shanty because it's not in a call and response format.

  • Sea shanties were sung specifically for work purposes among sailors and were popularized in the 1860s and 1870s.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

"Sea shanty Tok" is the latest internet sensation, with large groups of TikTokers joining in to sing seafaring songs together online. It's captured the imagination of the internet and proved that once again, for all its faults, TikTok can be home to some of the most wholesome memes around. For a UK-based academic, the success is equally puzzling and exciting.

Gerry Smyth, an academic and musician at Liverpool John Moores University, has spent years researching sea shanties, culminating in a book, Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas, which was due to be published in the UK in spring 2020.

"The idea was to capitalize on the folk festival season in the UK in the summer," he said. But the pandemic indefinitely postponed festivals and the book's release. While a US imprint went ahead with the release of Smyth's book in September 2020, its UK publication was pushed to spring 2021.

Then a Scottish mailman's version of a popular folk song went viral on TikTok.

Smyth says the viral song propelling 'shanty Tok' isn't actually a sea shanty.

After Nathan Evans posted an extremely-popular video of himself belting out "The Wellerman" on TikTok, the song has been inescapable online, and users have created a new genre of online content they call "shanty Tok."

While Smyth is thrilled with the renewed attention around sea shanties, he wants to set something straight - "The Wellerman" isn't a sea shanty. "'The Wellerman' song which has created such a hubbub on the internet is a whaling ballad that people are singing in a particular way that suggests a shanty aesthetic, but it's not a proper shanty, which is a call and response," Smyth said.

"The Wellerman," he says, is "in a format which is usually sung by a single person," Smyth explained, and just has a chorus where more people can join in.

While he doesn't mind the public's miscategorization, the merchant sailors who popularized sea shanties between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of steam sailing in the 1860s and 1870s almost certainly would.

Sailors were diligent about keeping sea shanties separate from their personal lives.

The sailors developed sea shanties, which rely on the call and response, to provide a rhythm to which they should be working, pulling ropes to hoist sails and pushing pumps to drain excess water from the bilges of ships. "This work was onerous, difficult, demanding, and it required groups of men doing the same thing at the same time," says Smyth.

Sailors drew a distinct firewall between the shanties they sung on the ships, and the communal ballads they sung on shore. "The shanties themselves are work songs, and the sailors were very superstitious about this," says Smyth. "They only sang them when working. They didn't when they were on a break."

The popularity of sea shanties waned when ships began being powered by steam in the middle of the 19th century, though they lasted in the cultural imagination in one form or another until the beginning of the Second World War. "They weren't tucked away in archives; lots of people were singing them, or versions of them," says Smyth.

The prude Victorians altered the lyrics of the shanties to accommodate their ears - as the folk singers who perform them today often do for modern sensibilities. "A lot of it was bawdy and objectionable to modern ears," he says. "A lot of them changed the lyrics and people continued to sing them."

They've remained popular at a baseline ever since in folk clubs in the UK, the eastern seaboard of the US, and anywhere with a strong maritime history. "People are still singing shanties in pubs and clubs," Smyth said. "It's not really above the radar. It's not a popular form of music; it's a folk music at this point."

Until "The Wellerman" came along.

Smyth says he hopes he can sing 'The Wellerman' with his band.

Smyth's daughters called him one day and asked if he'd seen the hubbub about sea shanties taking over the internet. He hadn't. "I've gone slightly out of the loop," he professes. "I don't really do social media that strongly. I'm immersed in archives and research and books."

Even with the public's miscategorization, he's happy nonetheless that people are talking about sailor songs.

"It's absolutely fantastic that people are adapting the technology and the form to communicate and articulate and be creative," he says. "Anything that gets people working together, singing together especially, and thinking together about form and delivery is going to be a good thing. We've been so isolated over the last year that it's been difficult, I don't think we can survive without technology."

He's particularly heartened because of the opportunities it offers. After "The Wellerman" went viral, his UK publisher pushed up his book's release date.

As well as the book, Smyth performed in a maritime folk band with colleagues at his university, which was forced to shut down. Now, he hopes that when restrictions lift, they can record an album of shanties and pull out "The Wellerman" at live performances.

Read the original article on Insider