"SEA SHANTIES' APPEAL AS A MUSICAL GENRE"
Updated: Apr 1
I love sea shanties. I always have. I’m unsure if it’s because I’m a Maritimer, my dad wore Old Spice when I was a kid, I watched Popeye cartoons in my youth, or simply because I have an aptitude for music. In this blog post, I’ll explain what sea shanties are and why this niche form of music is enjoying a renaissance.
What is a Sea Shanty?
According to Wikipedia, “a sea shanty is a genre of traditional folk song that was once commonly sung as a work song to accompany rhythmical labor aboard large merchant sailing vessels.”
Pushing and pulling work like raising sails or weighing anchors was hard and
monotonous and anything to make the task more enjoyable was welcomed. Because different labours demanded different periods of time, the shanties needed to be adaptable to the task at hand so they’d be shortened or lengthened as required.
The songs were led by a shantyman, known for his “lyrical wit and strong voice” who led the call and response type song as the men worked while singing in chorus.
THE SEA SHANTY RENAISSANCE
Nathan Evans, the Scottish postman who recorded himself singing sea shanties and posting his videos on Tik Tok, is arguably almost single-handedly responsible for the sea shanty craze that took over the internet during the Covid-19 pandemic. It became so popular that many major news agencies did features on the phenomenon. How could one person resuscitate a musical genre and capture the interest of a generation that might not have had any previous knowledge of it, or experience with maritime life, and actively inspire them to engage with him? The answer is a perfect storm of reasons.
Firstly, they’re easy and appealing. According to sciencefocus.com, they are “very, very repetitive and fairly upbeat, uplifting tunes and melodies that people can join and sing very quickly together.” These harmony-laden songs usually tell interesting stories and most people cannot resist an entertaining yarn.
Secondly, as chatelaine.com astutely observed, humans enduring the same common experience and singing together produces a sense of community, something which was lost during the pandemic. So when Evans posted his video of him banging his fist on a table pounding out the lyrics to “The Wellerman”, it should have come as no surprise that the far-reaching influence of the internet inspired and permitted other TikTokers from all over the world to join in and contribute additional voices and instrumentation in an effort to create an almost boundless sense of human connection as both participant or viewer.
Thirdly, it’s a form of escapism. As Mary Molloy pointed out in an NPR interview, “the sea has traditionally for centuries been thought of as a place to escape, to escape from whatever your reality is and that, I think in isolation, the idea of the sort of boundless sea in a place to be on a ship, it’s a great sort of escapism.” Couple that with our affinity for the sea as part of our internal connection to nature and how we romanticize maritime life in visual arts, poetry, prose, film, and other mediums, and it’s obvious that sea shanties stir our saltwater souls.
What other reasons might you suggest explain sea shanties’ current popularity? Tell me in the comments below and don’t forget to include your favourite shanty/shanties. Until next time,