WCP: Sea Shanties and the Pleasure of Work

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Even if you’re not a TikTok user, you might have heard about “Shantytok,” the viral series of short videos featuring, of all things, sea shanties. In Working-Class Perspectives (new window) this week, Kathy M. Newman explains why this old genre of work song is a good fit for these pandemic times.

I thought that the viral TikTok sea shanty trend had run its course when, just before Passover, I saw a link to a video called the “Red Sea Shanties.” Here the Jewish a capella group, Six13, changed the lyrics of various sea shanties to fit Passover themes. Especially catchy is: “what shall we do with the middle matzah?” sung to the tune of “what shall we do with a drunken sailor?”

The “Red Sea Shanties” made me wonder about the viral craze of the sea shanty. What inspired these songs? And why is a 200-year-old genre suddenly so popular?

The song that kicked off this craze is “The Wellerman.” If you haven’t seen the video, do so immediately. I am obsessed with it, and you should be, too! The singer is Nathan Evans, a “postie” (mailman) from the eastern suburbs of Glasgow, Scotland. His performance is sparse and stripped-down, and, yet, full of emotion. There are some harmonies layered onto Evan’s voice during the chorus, but Evans sings the verses a cappella, looking straight at the camera, while beating his fist against the table for rhythm.

With Evans’s thick brogue, it is easy to imagine how the song might have sounded in the 1800s when it was first sung by whalers in New Zealand. Evans uploaded his performance to TikTok in December, and, by mid-January it had been viewed more than 7 million times. Since then, all of TikTok has been bananas for sea shanties—so much so that there is now something called Shantytok.

The lyrics are about a whaling crew stuck in an endless loop of work. The crew finds a “right whale,” the name for the large, slow moving whale, that was so coveted for its bones and oil in the 19th century that it was fished practically to extinction. The crew harpoons the whale, but it gets away, swimming under the boat with the harpoon still stuck in its flesh.

The crew waits for the “tonguin’” to be done, meaning the final capture and dissection of the whale. They also wait for the “Wellerman” to come, the supply ships owned by the British born Weller brothers, who brought the whaling crews their “sugar and tea and rum.” Sadly, the whalers never get their whale, and, therefore, they will never be able to “take their leave and go.”

Sea shanties are part of the venerable tradition of the work song. Shanties were written for specific kinds of work that was performed by the ship’s crew. As work song sociologist Marek Korczynski has explained, there were unique sea shanties for hauling rope, trimming sails, and working on the ship’s machinery. Another scholar has argued that the sea shanties were literal tools, calling them “akin to a hammer.”

“The Wellerman,” ironically, is not really a sea shanty. For something to be an actual sea shanty, YouTuber Adam Neely explains, the song has to have a call and a response, a form that has its origins in African diaspora work music. Shanties usually begin with a solo chant, the “call,” which is followed by the rest of the crew singing their responses while performing a critical piece of labor, such as pulling on a rope at the same time. The call and response of a typical sea shanty is represented surprisingly well by the introduction to Sponge Bob Square Pants, Neely explains.

But for the love of pirates, how did sea shanties become so popular in 2021? As Neely argues, the genre is particularly good for the duet function of TikTok. After Nathan Evans posted his version of “The Wellerman” in December of 2020, other TikTok users added their images, voices, and instrumentals to his post.

Neely explains that sea shanties are based in a musical principle called antiphony, which means, a “responsive alternation between two groups, especially of singers.” TikTok is rooted in antiphony as well, Neely explains, as users take the content generated by others, alter it, and put it back on the platform. TikTok thrives on “responsive alternation.”

Another likely cause of the rise of Shantytok is, that, like those sailors of yore, after more than a year of a global pandemic, we have cabin fever. As The New York Times noted, sea shanties are weirdly appropriate for 2021. Like “longhaul” sailors, we have, “longhaul” COVID19 sufferers.

Ultimately, Shantytok has brought new interest to the phenomenon of manly men who sing. Many of the men of Shantytok are white, but men of African descent have chimed in as well. In addition, the antiphony of TikTok has allowed women to elbow their way into what once was, no doubt, a sacred space of white male labor and song.

Shantytok also reminds us that singing can be a form of work. Becoming a shanty star enabled Nathan Evans to quit his job at the post office, after all.

Finally, Shantytok reminds us that there can be pleasure in hard work, especially work that is done collectively. Whether on the deck of a 19th century whaling ship, or a Zoom call in 2021, the work we do together, heaving and singing, can be jolly good fun.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University