Sea Shanties: a 2021 internet sensation

March 20 2021, by Toby Wright

If you have listened to the Global Top 50 playlist in current times then you would know that sea shanties have become hugely popular and users on social media platforms such as TikTok have gone quite literally overboard for their steady, reassuring rhythms. Musically speaking, however, what are they and what is the tale behind them?

Nobody knows exactly how long sea shanties go back but the word shanty, or chantey, comes from the French chanter, “to sing” and singing became a routine for sailors on 19th century merchant ships. Similar to African work songs, sea shanties often have steady rhythms and call-and-response which are used to coordinate sailor’s labour more effectively.

This musical form, also called antiphony, is also used in sea shanties when one sailor would take the role of ‘calling’ a line, for the collective group to ‘respond’ across the deck.

Different sea shanties exist for different purposes and some even have particularly placed musical accents to enable the efficient completion of task, for example, sail-hoisting. Tempo is also used to synchronise actions and speed on specific jobs.

In 2020, a now very famous and extremely catchy shanty called ‘The Wellerman’ went viral due to a postman named Nathan Evans, who started singing the folk songs in his bedroom in Scotland and posting them to TikTok, unaware his videos would lead to a full-blown shanty renaissance.

Musicians, who were stuck in lockdown at the time, all jumped on board with the trend and added their own musical parts to Evans’ original vocal. Descant-loving sopranos, resonant basses, gravelly baritones, solo tenors, pianists and violinists were amongst the entire symphony of individuals who got involved. There was even a particularly brilliant duet with Andrew Lloyd Webber who added an effective piano accompaniment.

These folk songs created a sense of belonging and community in the strange world at the time and helped to make virtual connections across the planet. People tweeted words such as “I don’t know why they call it a sea shanty when every time I hear one I think ‘yes I shall sing along.’”

There is a common misunderstanding that any song which relates or mentions the sea is a sea shanty. A well-known example of this is the love song/ballad ‘Jolly Sailor Bold’ which is used a mermaid’s siren call in the universally enjoyed movie franchise ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean.’ A haunting version of this song went viral on YouTube and TikTok in 2020, by the so-called ‘Stairwell Siren’ who is a lady who lives in Las Vegas and sings in her stairwell which has extraordinary acoustics. This is due to the lack of any furnishings such as carpets which absorb sound and the bare walls which makes the space noticeably reverberant. The original video of her singing now has nearly 4 million views and is also a great example of a trend in which people sing in public places which have excellent natural acoustics. Indoor swimming pools, bathrooms and car parks are among the locations which seem to have the best echoes!

These are especially appropriate for sea shanties which can range from very simple and off-the-cuff to perfectly rehearsed with complicated arrangements. However, on the whole, they have catchy and easy to pick up melodies which people can join in with, such the merchant sailors could remember them while working.

The majority of sea shanties are sung a cappella – without any instrumental or backing accompaniment – which highlights their often casual and spontaneous nature. They can contain lyrics or phrases on punchy moments to create a loud and triumphant collective sound, such as on words like ‘Haul’ or Ho.’ This supports the sailors to coordinate and create energy during jobs or chores which are more heavy-duty.

Most shanties come in common time or 4/4 time; this is an easy beat to keep track of and for sailors to keep in time with while they’re working. However, it is not uncommon to find sea shanties in 6/8 time which is suitable for storytelling and seemingly reflects the up-and-down movement of waves.

Sea shanties have an almost cosmic impact on people; rather like gospel songs and church hymns which have intertextual meanings, they can help up to feel like we are part of something much bigger. It is a joyous and collective musical moment which sailors and the general population seemed to have found comfort in while being away from their close friends and family for long periods of time.

Toby Wright, L6