Sea shanties become viral musical trend of 2020
Through all of the unexpected developments of the past year and a half, perhaps one worth celebrating is the rebirth of sea shanties. In 2020, sea shanties became a viral social media trend, reached the top of music charts, and were searched online more than ever before. While this traditional folk genre has always had its devotees, the recent resurgence has spread to the forefront of entertainment culture, with features in films, video games, and even triggering the creation of a new sea shanty choir on campus.
Shanties are work songs sung by fishermen, wellermen, and sailors to accompany their labor aboard their ships. These chants, typically sung without musical accompaniment, were meant to match the work movements such as hauling ropes, setting the sails, mopping the decks, and much more. Not only did the songs match the rhythm of the working sailors, but, more importantly, they built morale and made the long and dangerous journey more bearable.
The lyrics of these chants carry the emotions of a sailor’s life and bring the listener aboard the high seas with him. Some shanties speak of a playful experience on the ocean—for instance, the famous “Drunken Sailor” —while others approach questions of mortality and impending doom, as found in “Bones in the Ocean.” Sailors sing of their love for wives back home, of the beauty of the vast ocean, and of what they will do once back on land. While today there exist recordings of formal shanties, these songs and verses have been passed down over the generations, meaning that they have no formal rules or set lyrics. Given a melody and a rhythm, anyone can turn their own trials and joys into a shanty of their own.
The modern listener is immediately sent to a new world when he turns on his favorite chant. The opening lyrics carry the listener out to sea and spark an internal yearning for adventure and mystery. Whether it is the feeling of perpetual motion fostered through rhythm and repetition, the storyteller lyrics, or the profound accessibility of the songs that most strongly affects a listener, it is beyond doubt that the shanty makes him a part of something completely different than anything found in pop culture today. The shanty fad, made popular through social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram, is about more than just the appeal of being a part of something “old”. Shanties offer a complete reversal of today’s entertainment and music culture, obsessed as it is with synthetic and electronic sounds, complex rhythms, vulgarity, and inaccessible emotions.
At the forefront of the sea shanty viral trend was a mid-19th century whaling song titled “Wellerman.” The song states, “One day, when the tonguing is done, We’ll take our leave and go.” The modern sea shanty fanatic is not familiar with this emotion, or, really, with any content that the average shanty includes, but the genre’s appeal somehow transcends one’s ability to relate. Even without understanding what is occuring, the listener wants to take part in an authentic, natural, and unornamented experience. The sailors sing together in detail of their mundane tasks with raw emotion, singing in their rough, untrained voices.
In addition to their rustic appeal, shanties also bring the listener into something greater than themselves. These are songs that have lasted the test of time. They may be fairly incomprehensible as far as their lyrics are concerned, but they remain culturally significant and represent a thread of oral tradition that has kept them alive up until today. Even if subconsciously, the average listener feels a part of something important and yet mysterious. Perhaps the joy and passion found in listening is not just a breath of fresh air in an increasingly embellished culture, but also an appreciation for tradition and for the preservation of what is reality itself.
These songs, which represent a desire for something more real, cannot be considered without truly examining what shanties are. At their core, they are songs not only sung communally but are also about the joy of living within a community. Perhaps one of the most popular sea shanties today, “Here’s a Health to the Company,” opens with the lines: “Kind friends and companions, come join me in rhyme, come lift up your voices in chorus with mine.” Each sea shanty invokes a similar invitation, calling others to join in with the rousing chorus.
It is no coincidence that the viral sea shanty trend arose amidst the pandemic. As the world faces increasing isolation and individualism, the desire to be a part of a connected body with a united mission could not be stronger. Just as shanties built camaraderie and morale on the high seas for the sailors, now they invite the isolated into a cooperative journey. More so than any other choral or contemporary music, the shanty acts on the innate human desire for shared toil, shared joy, and a shared end goal. The interest in these traditional uplifting and catchy tunes may soon disappear, but for now, the shanty’s call towards community, tradition, and work ought to be celebrated.
Nico Schmitz is a sophomore from Pasadena, CA majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. His favorite sea shanty is “Randy Dandy Oh,” but he is always looking for more recommendations. If you’d like someone to sing shanties with, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured art: Auguste Etienne François Mayer (1805-1890), “Corvette La Recherche near Bear Island”