Music

Sea Shanty TikTok Is on Fire

This isn’t the sea shanty’s first revival, but it’s the most surreal.

Screenshots of TikTokers singing shanties, surrounded by eighth notes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Pannawish Jarusilawong/iStock/Getty Images Plus and TikTok.

By now, you may have noticed that TikTok users are banging drums, fiddling, and lending their surprisingly rich bass undertones to songs about sugar and rum. You might be wondering what, exactly, has happened to the teens. But in a political moment defined by instability and uncertainty, a social landscape where we long for personal and political communion, and a meme economy that values Dadaist absurdity as a prize currency, it should surprise no one that sea shanties are back. It might even make perfect sense.

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On TikTok, users are donning Shetland sweaters and belting 19th century a cappella maritime songs, to the tune of more than 74 million views. The app’s infrastructure, built to foster video collaboration, means that individual users can record echoey solos, multiply their own voice into a chorus, or join a shanty choir of strangers. There are complicated in-jokes about what your favorite shanty says about you, staged shanty raves, and a surplus of billowy white shirts.

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The shanty has been having a good decade. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a 2013 video game set in the pirate age, allowed players to collect period-accurate shanties later compiled into a popular soundtrack. In 2019, Dave Malloy staged a prestigious musical adaptation of Moby-Dick that turned shanty motifs into high art. Yes, these reworks are kitschy and silly, and they’ll probably disappear faster than the Pequod. But the sea shanty has been fished out of the barrel of history before, and we’re watching it happen once more.

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Historically speaking, the shanty exists to be revived. Even in the 1880s, shanties seemed dated, false anachronisms built to sound older than they were, even if some were quite old. While origins are hard to place, scholars agree that shanties began as sailing songs to coordinate work rhythms, and the songbook we have today stems mainly from the 19th century. In practice, they are simple songs: A solo lead, the shantyman, sets the cadence and sings verses rife with filler and nonsense; the crew responds with the chorus, timing their work to the rhythm of the song. But the musical simplicity belies their complicated history. Rhythms from the traditions of enslaved Africans mingled with English, Spanish, French. The shanty is a multilingual art that demands a sailor’s sophisticated knowledge of sailing, sea slang, and geography. (Quick—where’s the Kamchatka Peninsula, and how far is it from Maui?)

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Until about 10 years ago, shanty culture consisted of an old guard making the rounds of the maritime music festivals circuit, with Pete Seeger and shanty titan Stan Rogers in the ambient background, and a younger crew of IRA-supporting, hard-drinking shanty fiends speeding up the songs and shredding the harmonies.

But that began to change in July of last year, when Scottish TikToker Nathan Evans received a strange request. He recalls, “Someone commented under one of my videos requesting ‘Leave Her Johnny.’ ” Evans had never heard of the song, but it’s one of the more popular sea shanties, both on the festival circuit and on the Black Flag soundtrack. Evans had never sung or listened to shanties prior to that, but he gave it a shot, recording a video that has since garnered more than 1 million views.

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He followed it up with a series of shanties, including his rendition of “Wellerman,” a New Zealand shanty from the 1800s made popular by the Norfolk Broads and, later, the Longest Johns. Evans beats tempo with his fist, layers his voice to make a chorus, and spins a tragic story of whaling. It’s the song that you’ve been hearing on repeat all this week, and it became the catalyst for the enormous phenomenon now known as SeaShantyTok. People are remixing the song, layering it with evermore bass and dancing to it. Twitter finds it confusing, but hilarious and irresistible.

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This TikTok shanty trend both resembles and totally departs from past shanty revivals. Like its predecessors, the TikTok revival gazes backward. The songs, styles, arrangements—everything comes coated in the wind-battered varnish of the past.

But the TikTok phenomena is unique too. For starters, it is dizzyingly popular. Evans attributes this to the fact that “shanties bring everyone together.” They’re democratic and, despite the bawdiness, “wholesome.” In a historical context, the TikTok shanty trend sheds the preservationist ethos of past revivals. On TikTok, shanties don’t exist to be collected. Instead, they invite participation. You don’t preserve it in amber. You jump in.

On a technical level, shanties seem perfectly primed for TikTok. They’re a call-and-response genre on a call-and-response app. The songs and melodies are simple by design. Evans says that “You don’t need to be able to sing to join in on a shanty” (though he really, really can—his five-track shanty EP drops next week). Instruments are strictly optional and are usually limited to a drum or a fiddle when they are used. Mixing a shanty collaboration, especially through TikTok’s duet feature, mainly requires layering voices. And, like memes, the shanty is an art form that seemingly belongs to no one, comes from nowhere, exists to be replicated. All singers need is a drum, a couple voices, and maybe a leg blown off by a cannonball.

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Part of the joy, too, comes in the self-aware absurdity of the trend. Like the Ratatouille musical, it’s such a strange concept that it shreds through self-consciousness. The “are we really doing this right now?” feeling is best captured by the widely circulated video of two men in a car, the driver looking on skeptically as his passenger rocks out to “Wellerman.” A few seconds later, however, the driver is admitting that the song sounds “kinda lit,” and by the end of the video he’s belting right along.

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There’s no doubt that the almost surreal novelty of sea shanties plays into their sudden popularity, but I’d suggest that, like Stan Rogers’ folk shanty revivals of the 1960s, the shanty trend responds to the conditions of 2021. The shanty promises communion. It’s a harmonizing genre. In the context of the pandemic, shanties evoke a more exuberant version of the shared experience, the togetherness, of quarantined opera performances and orchestral flash mobs.

There’s a resonant pathos to the genre. Shanties give voice to longing. The singers long for sugar, for home, for lost friends, for love (or, more accurately, sex), or simply to get off the goddamned boat. They voice a shared mourning and collective loneliness. Shanties look backward, to homes left behind, and forward, to the return journey. Listen to the haunted chanting of this Norwegian crew returning to shore and try to remain unmoved.

We’re all stuck in the same boat, with the same crazed captain. The best you can do—the best we can do—is vibe. Or, in nautical terms, roll the old chariot along.

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