March 5, 2021 | Arts and Culture
shanties on the high seas of the internet
A few months ago, my friend sent me a TikTok. The video, captioned “When I hand my brother the aux,” features a man named Promise Uzowulu (@strong_promises on TikTok) and his brother sitting in the car and listening to music. If you’re familiar with TikTok, you may already know where this is going. His brother is blasting a sea shanty called “The Wellerman,” and Promise is not having it. At least, not at first. But, over a short sequence of videos, we see Promise begin to enjoy the shanty more and more. By the end, he’s not only feeling the music, he’s even singing along and performing backup for his brother.
It’s a fun video, but there’s a specific reason my friend sent it to me: I’ve been a fan of shanties for about three years now. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. I began listening to sea shanties ironically, and then I fell down the rabbit hole. Shanties are kitschy and melodramatic, and I thought they were funny. After a period of resistance, they’ve made their way onto a playlist of their own that I listen to fairly regularly. Sure, I’m still a fan in a joking sense, but the line between listening ironically and listening for legitimate entertainment has begun to blur. Of course, I wouldn’t play my shanty playlist at a party, but if I’m just hanging out with a friend, why not? When it comes to sharing shanties with other people, I am Promise’s brother. In fact, my sister sent me the same TikTok a day later, along with a text message saying that this is what it’s like to live with me. I’ll take her word for it.
I blame Spotify. For those who aren’t familiar, the Discover Weekly playlist is generated each Monday and is based on your listening history. Sometime during my senior year of high school, two years before the TikTok trend, the song “Northwest Passage” by Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers (a somber recounting of a failed sailing expedition) popped up on my Discover Weekly. To be clear, I was not a fan of Canadian folk music, had never heard of Stan Rogers, and there was no reason for this song to be on my playlist. Yet, there it was. I thought it was hilarious. I remember sitting at one of the vinyl-topped tables in my high school’s library, checking that the room was empty, and playing “Northwest Passage” for a friend. Somehow, over the course of playing it again and again for other people, I grew to kind of like the song, and that was the beginning of the end.
I found a YouTube playlist called “A Collection of Sea Shanties (vocal only)” and began using it for background music while I did schoolwork. In the playlist’s description, the creator, Matt Dearing, explained, “There are far too many videos with cheesy and otherwise childish sea shanties, so I compiled some real shanties that only have vocals.” Dearing’s tone in the playlist’s description caught me off guard. Clearly, there was a community of dedicated fans out there. It seemed silly that anyone could take something as niche as shanties seriously enough that they would be offended by less authentic ones. Yet, by the time I got to Brown, I was strangely well-versed in shanties. Once, while sitting on the Main Green during a warm fall day, I noticed that ARRR!!!, Brown’s pirate themed acapella group, was practicing. I then realized that I recognized the shanties they were performing, something I found equal parts embarrassing and impressive.
While it may seem strange on the surface, on some level, the recent rise in the popularity of shanties makes sense. For one thing, they’re extremely catchy. They were originally used by British and Anglo-American sailors in the 19th century to help them keep time in their work, hence their strong beat. On board the ship, there were certain jobs that required the crew to move as one, so they used shanties and “sing-outs” in order to synchronize their efforts. Additionally, shanties have a structure that make them especially easy to sing. In practice, there would be a member of the sailing crew known as the “shantyman.” The shantyman is the soloist. He’s the one in charge of singing the majority of the lyrics and leading the song, and the rest of the crew chimes in for the chorus.
There are different shanties for different shipboard activities, such as heaving and hauling. For instance, “Roll the Old Chariot Along” was traditionally sung while sailors heaved weights using a large, spinning winch called a capstan. When you listen to the song, it’s clear and driving, and you can envision a crew stepping in time, spinning the capstan to haul anchor. Another shanty, “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her,” a ballad lamenting the leaving of not a lover, but a ship, was typically sung while the crew pumped water out of the ship’s hold when it came into port at the end of a voyage.
When ShantyTok went viral this winter, I thought it was entertaining, but I wasn’t completely amused. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I was also a little bitter. Sure, now that shanties were popular on TikTok, everyone loved them, but I had been a fan before they were popular. I felt like that annoying hipster complaining about being ahead of the trend. To my horror, I realized that I was beginning to understand Matt Dearing’s protectiveness over the genre. I had become the angry old man warning my friends against “cheesy and otherwise childish sea shanties.”
Eventually, I realized that I had become the very shanty fan that I had mocked not too long ago, and I had to take a step back. I’m not a 19th century sailor, and have no real claim over shanties. And I don’t blame people for thinking they’re fun. They are fun. Most importantly, they offer an escape, which I think we are all seeking out at the moment.
It’s hard not to imagine yourself sailing the high seas when you listen to a shanty; you can almost smell the salt in the air and feel the wind as it carries you across the ocean. To listen to one is to be transported back in time to the deck of a sloop. Shanties are songs about missing home, a hard day of work, longing for an old partner, all feelings produced by the movement and isolation of travel. A typical transatlantic voyage could take between six weeks and three months, and during that time, sailors were largely stuck aboard their ships. The journeys themselves were perilous, and I can only imagine the boredom passengers must have felt. To some extent, we can draw connections between our experiences with quarantine and a sailor’s journey. I think that we’re all feeling a little adrift at the moment. Perhaps it’s fitting that shanties should make a reappearance now that many of us are confined to our rooms and missing those we care about.
In addition to escapism, shanties are about camaraderie. The shanty is designed to be sung as a group. Back in the day, it was meant to bind the crew together, to entertain them while they worked. Today, TikTok users duet videos of other shanty singers, layering a bass rendition of the shanty over a tenor over an alto. A line of windows extends out, showing us all the contributions that the community has made to the piece. You can see that this is still a collaborative effort. Instead of bringing folks together in the physical sense, TikTok shanties have brought people together virtually. Do I get a little annoyed when someone adds in an instrument that isn’t authentic to the time period? Yes. Do I feel like a shanty snob when I get annoyed? Also yes.
In the late 1800s, the steamboat was the undoing of the shanty tradition. Due to the increased mechanization, there was less need for workers to heave or haul in unison, and therefore less need for shanties. Shantymen were no longer necessary, and the position was abandoned. This winter, shanties experienced a revival, and I think we’re the better for it. However you listen to them, whether with an ironic or unironic appreciation, they have an entertainment value that’s unlike any other genre of music. They deserve the recognition, frankly, and I’m happy they’re getting it. That said, now that shanties are mainstream, I’ll have to find a new music niche. I’m considering cowboy campfire songs.