The History Of Sea Shanties Explained

We know by now that the internet can get the most unexpected things trending. But still, many were surprised when, just a few weeks ago, TikTok users began a craze of sharing sea shanties, a form of maritime folk song that, according to Historic UK, can be traced back until "at least the mid-1400s."

In an article wryly suggesting that "lockdown has broken us to such an extent that we're forced to sing sea shanties on the internet for fun," The Guardian described how, back in January, the social media platform became enamored with the romantic and alluring tones of the traditional genre following an upload by the Scottish singer and postal worker Nathan Evans. Evans, 26, posted a video in which he performed "The Wellerman," a song that originated in New Zealand in 1833, according to New Zealand Folk Song. Soon, other users began joining in, adding bass tones and harmonies until Evan's solo performance had become something of a singalong — and resembled the way that sea shanties would have been performed traditionally.

Subsequently, the trend went viral. Almost two million users have now viewed Evans' original video, while the multitude of augmented versions have helped to bring renewed appreciation of the traditional song form to a whole generation of young TikTok users.

Evans has since enjoyed virtual duets with British singer Gary Barlow and musical supremo Andrew Lloyd Webber, and has since signed a record deal with Polydor, which has released his cover of "Wellerman" as his first single, per udiscovermusic.

Sea shanties are ancient work songs

But where did sea shanties originally come from — and why do we still find them so irresistibly evocative?

Typically, sea shanties are simple songs recounting the exploits of sailors and the nature of life at sea. Found all over the world, from Europe to New Zealand, Classic FM states that the sea shanty as we know it today — in the style that has become popular on social media — has its roots in the traditional work songs of Africa, while the name 'shanty' "came through French influence, the French word for 'singing' being 'chanter.'"

And its not too difficult to figure out why such songs were so popular and spread so widely among seafaring folk: Singing raises the spirits, creating camaraderie and entertainment during long — and sometimes grim — voyages at sea. But unlike melodious ballads and the folk songs sung during downtime, the highly rhythmic sea shanty also serves a pragmatic purpose for these hardy bands of sailors as they labored to keep their ships afloat and en route.

Per Historic UK, "The shanty was quite simply a working song that ensured sailors involved in heavy manual tasks, such as tramping round the capstan or hoisting the sails for departure, synchronized individual efforts to efficiently execute their collective task, i.e. simply making sure that each sailor pushed or pulled, at precisely the same time."

What is story behind the 'Wellerman' sea shanty?

The history of "Soon May The Wellerman Come" — or, more simply, "Wellerman," as it has come to be known by TikTok users — is perhaps representative of the themes common to most sea shanties, and of how such songs have been passed down through the generations.

Per the Guardian: "A 'Wellerman' was an employee of the Sydney-based Weller Brothers' shipping company, which from 1833 was the major supplier of provisions – such as the 'sugar and tea and rum' of the shanty's refrain — to whaling stations on New Zealand shores." The song, therefore, evokes a very particular job, for a particular company, in a particular part of the world.

The sailors in the song are whalers, and, like Hermann Mellville's novel Moby Dick, "Wellerman" tells the tale of a crew's Herculean battle with a huge whale. One of the more peculiar lines in "Wellerman" goes: "When the tongueing is done we'll take our leave and go." According to the same source, "tongueing" is the task of stripping whale carcasses of blubber — a very useful commodity in the 19th century, which could be rendered into oil for fuel, foodstuffs, and even fuel for lamps, according to National Geographic.

According to New Zealand Folk Song, a new version of "Wellerman," titled "Needleman," has recently been written, telling the tale of humanity's struggle to vaccinate the world against COVID-19.