A beginner’s guide to sea shanties

Sea shanties have taken over social media, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve been waiting for this day for years. While there’s always been a modern audience of shanty appreciators (one that grew after the release of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in 2013), many people are hearing them for the first time thanks to a viral TikTok rendition of “Wellerman” by Nathan Evans. The initial video has been dueted, stitched, and remixed dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of times since it was originally posted—creating long, chorus-like chains of singers and other musicians. Here’s a sample of just one mashup from YouTube if you haven’t already heard it:

This sparked something akin to the recent Bardcore trend of 2020, which we discussed on this blog in an interview with Hildegard von Blingin last year. Not only is TikTok is full of sea shanty covers, but Spotify boasts new playlists every day (like this awesome one I’ve had on repeat), and Google even reported that more people than ever are searching for sea shanties online.

So what is it about the antediluvian sea shanty that is so captivating, and what are the best shanties to start with if you’ve never engaged with this type of music before? Let’s dive in.

A short history of the work song

There are plenty of articles out there about work songs, but here are the basics: for thousands of years, humans have accompanied physical labor with music. This is something that happened around the world regardless of creed or culture, from women carding wool and weaving cloth in Scotland to men hunting in the Congo. There are even folklorists who recognize that lullabies and cowboy herding sounds are examples of work songs, as mentioned in this article from the Library of Congress.

Most work songs were designed to help workers keep a rhythm—this is certainly true of African-American work songs that developed during the exploitation and enslavement of Black people in the United States, as well as with the later development of railroad songs and the industrial folk song. This is where the sea shanty fits in: a simple song with a distinctive beat that often uses a call-and-response format to keep everyone engaged. Onboard ship, sailors (and yes, pirates too) would sing these songs as they coordinated their actions of raising the anchor, adjusting the rigging, etc.

It’s not surprising that most people find this type of music stuck in their heads after only listening to it for a while. Work songs are designed to be catchy and easy to remember, and the sea shanty is no exception. It’s not by accident that these tunes have stuck around for hundreds of years.

The draw of virtual companionship

The significance of virtual communities has long been discussed  by academics, psychologists, and others—not only in the wake of social media but even back during the golden days of forums and instant messengers a la AIM. People have been hanging out online for decades, further proving that humans crave relationships and connectivity of any and all kinds, even when the world isn’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

It makes perfect sense, then, that apps like TikTok are thriving while people are socially distancing, sheltering in place, and quarantining. TikTok’s format isn’t just about commenting on people’s videos and following their accounts; it was designed for ultimate community interaction and content reinvention through dueting and stitching. Why, then, shouldn’t something like sea shanties also flourish on that platform? It’s like the perfect storm—people are feeling lonely and isolated thanks to COVID-19, so they rely more heavily on virtual connections than ever before…TikTok is the perfect social media app for creating collaborative chains of content…and sea shanties were written for people to sing together out on the ocean, when they were cut off from the rest of the world and needed to work together in unison to get back home again.

Even users who aren’t adding their own voices to the sea shanty chains are actively commenting how happy it makes them to see people coming together through music—complete strangers layering new voices together to create a different version of the original video that can be shared again, and again, and again by other complete strangers. We may not know each other in real life, but we are bonded by the experience of joining together in ancient song as both vocalists and viewers.

So where do I start?

You don’t have to be a TikTok user to enjoy this “new” trend, although I do recommend checking out some of the chains like the one included above—there are some truly beautiful collaborations, as well as videos by other users who are sharing different types of work and folk songs. (Not to mention a handful who are taking pop songs and reimagining them as sea shanties…I told you this reminded me of Bardcore!)

That said, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy sea shanties, or any genre of music! A perusal of Spotify or Google will introduce you to some of the most enduring sea shanties, but here’s a short list of my personal favorites that are sure to make you long for the open ocean. Some of these are old shanties, others are more recent creations in the same maritime/folk style.