If the ocean is calling to you, it could be via TikTok these days. Although the video-based social networking platform is usually reminiscent of dance challenges, lip-syncing, and weird sketches, the latest trend to wash yourself ashore is to sing shanties from centuries ago. The internet has dubbed this nautical moment #ShantyTok.
Since around the end of December, TikTok has seen an increasing interest in videos of people not only singing shanties, but also making impressive a cappella arrangements of the melodies traditionally sung by crews on merchant sailing ships. Thanks to the platform’s ability to collaborate, people don’t have to sit on the same ship to sing together. So far, videos tagged with #seashanty have had more than 89 million views. And that number continues to grow as the word spreads. On Tuesday, Google Trends tweeted These “seaman’s songs” had been searched more than ever before in the history of the platform. According to Spotify, more than 12,000 Sea Shanty playlists have been created since the end of December.
It turns out that the preferred mood for the first week of 2021 is to complain about being stuck on a whaling ship while the rum is running out.
Seemingly at the center of the hot tub is Nathan Evans, 26, a postman outside of Glasgow, Scotland whose rendition of the 19th century New Zealand folk song Wellerman surged 1 million views on December 27th on TikTok and has been included in countless other TikToks . The song tells the story of whalers waiting on a supply ship.
The Wellerman. # seashanty # sea # shanty # viral # sing # acoustic # pirate # new # original # fyp # foryou # foryoupage # singer # scottishsinger # scottish
♬ Original sound – NATHANEVANSS
“It got wild. I don’t really know what happened,” says Evans, who can be found as Nathan Evanss mainly on social platforms like Spotify.
Evans, who mostly posts videos of himself performing Scottish folk songs, pop covers and, more recently, his own material, says he can’t believe how much people like sea shanties. He had around 45,000 followers on TikTok in early December, and that number has topped 347,000.
Where do shanties come from?
The fact that Sea Shanties landed on a 21st century social networking platform is an unexpected development. According to the online history magazine Historic UK, Sea Shanties date from at least the mid-14th century. Signing and keeping the rhythm together would help keep crews in sync for tasks like lifting sails when everyone has to push or pull at the same time. Usually there was a lead singer or shantyman and the crew joined the choir.
As steam power finally spread in the centuries that followed and less manual labor was required on ships, seaman’s shops began to die out, says Historic UK. They were almost forgotten by the 20th century. However, this was not the end of the line for seaman’s songs. There have been maritime music festivals over the years; Shanties even played a role in gameplay in 2013and they were a staple for SpongeBob SquarePants. A Sea Shanty singing group was involved in the romantic comedy Fisherman’s Friend in 2019.
What exactly is a Wellerman?
While it’s virtually impossible to determine who and when posted the first shanty song on TikTok, Evans posted his first (a song called Leave Her, Johnny) in July. To his surprise, it broke 1 million views, earning him new followers and requests for more. On December 23, he released The Scotsman, split into three videos. However, it was Wellerman who really took off.
“Wellerman may soon come to bring us sugar, tea and rum. One day, when the tongue is ready, we will say goodbye and leave” is an unlikely catchy tune.
There was already love for Wellerman out there. User Jacob Doublesin started making sketches in late October. His biography says that he is “Sea-EO of Wellerman”. In early December, user Rysmiith uploaded his version of Wellerman and created duet versions on TikTok (you can record your own split screen video with someone else) to add harmonies. Google Trends shows a smaller increase in searches for Wellerman, but when Evans’ version hit, the search term exploded on Google. He says things calmed down a bit in a matter of days, but another jolt came when 19-year-old Luke Taylor added his startling deep baritone to the mix.
Since then, people have added all kinds of harmonies:
#duet again with @ the.bobbybass SHANTY TIME! Adding a lower middle harmony 🙂 @nathanevanss @ _luke.the.voice_ @ apsloan01 # shantytok # wellerman
♬ Original sound – NATHANEVANSS
Strings have also been added to the version of @anipeterson as I’ve received so many requests! @nathanevanss @ _luke.the.voice_ # fyp # seashanty # wellerman # viral # fiddle
♬ Original sound – Miaasano music
They made a club-ready remix out of it:
## Duet with @ _luke.the.voice_ ## Bass ## xyzbca ## xyzcba ## Stich ## foru ## foryou ## fyp ## banger ## seashanty @nathanevanss
♬ Original sound – NATHANEVANSS
And a lot of people make fun of the novelty of sea shanties, of all things, which is becoming increasingly popular in an app that is so often associated with teenagers:
If it wasn’t about the salt air and the desire for a lover, then you had to go ashore. I don’t wanna hear ## fyp ## foryoupage ## seashanty ## shantyseason
♬ Original sound – Justin Mousseau
It’s hard to say why exactly that happened. It could be the quirky factor or the excitement of watching talented people do cool things. Or maybe, as some studies have shown, choral singing has positive effects on people’s wellbeing. Maybe after a year of stress and turmoil, rich harmonies and a 4/4 beat provide some kind of balm.
“It’s pretty therapeutic to me because it’s just vocals and a kick drum and the people are in harmony,” says Evans. “There are quite a few people together.”
Whatever the reason, Sea Shanties continue to spread. Popular vlogger Hank Green recorded a duet that explains what Wellerman is all about and what exactly the poetry “When the Tongue Is Done” means (Slaughtering the Whale for Meat). Another user named Hunter Evenson turns pop songs like WAP by Cardi B with Megan Thee Stallion into shanties.
For his part, Evans followed Wellerman with a 19th-century tune called Drunken Sailor (an early morning exploration of what to pull on a drunken sailor like shaving your stomach with a rusty razor), and he’s got more shanties in store, mainly from the requests he receives on TikTok. He also wants to record a short EP and put it on the Bandcamp music platform.
Until then, TikToker have to ration supplies and wait for the Wellerman.