Tik Tok is not an app for dancing 15 year olds anymore. In fact, it never really was. It’s a seriously powerful creative platform. If this wasn’t obvious before, the global ShantyTok phenomenon (I know… it does sound ludicrous) proves that Tik Tok is a lot more than a social media platform. The seemingly harmless Sea Shanty trend has garnered waves of global media attention, led to record labels scrambling for deals, and created a shanty-fuelled race for the number one chart position.
If you’re thinking: what? Did I miss this? Here’s a full account of the recent rise of the sea shanty with the low-down on what happened, and how.
The why element of the rise in shanty popularity simply deserves its own investigation. With roots based in slavery, and a deceptively nuanced musical basis, the shanty is more than it seems. All aboard please.
A (highly) condensed shanty history
Many a wild night of my own youth was spent banging pints on the tables of locked-in pubs across Ireland, wailing “You’re bound for South Australia!” and “Leaaave her Johnny, leave her!”, completely unaware of the history of these well worn worker’s songs, many of which are based in colonialism and slavery.
Sea shanties are work songs. More specifically, they were adopted in the 19th century on merchant ships, as a means of coordinating huge amounts of seamen and labour.
Note the word “adopted”.
The shanty format that merchant ships followed was developed directly from Southern Black work songs. In earlier times, masses of slave labour would use music in a call and response fashion to coordinate their work. The songs were solely designed to increase productivity and effectiveness – they were a labour management tool.
So when the need arrived for high levels of work coordination on 1800’s merchant ships, this call and response format was adopted, and interweaved with many Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh folk songs – forming what we now recognise as the sea shanty.
You’ve been warned: music theory nerd session coming up.
What’s antiphony? This is antiphony!
The call-and-response format, or antiphony, forms the absolute foundation of the shanty. The shantyman would call, the labour would respond, and an action would be accomplished or achieved whilst singing the response. Different formats of shanty, certain meters, varying rhythms and even lyrical components were used and adjusted to accompany different tasks on the ship, but it was always call-and-response.
For hoisting sails, it would often be 2 bars of call from shantyman followed by 2 bars of response from the crew, with an accent on the first beat of those bars, when they would pull heavy loads together. Longer melodies with an accent on the last note of the chorus were used to get the crew excited and ready to work.
A sea shanty is defined by antiphony, but the use of antiphony is not exclusive to the shanty. Antiphony is a key tool in many music genre tool kits – Freddie Mercury’s “ayyy oh…” being one iconic example. Gospel, rock, jazz, and pop all use antiphony in some way or another, as whether it was used consciously for this effect or not, it is an incredibly powerful way to connect people.
Not only is antiphony used widely across musical genres, but it can be traced back to a multitude of religions, cultures and countries. Scotland had ‘waulking’ songs, a call-and-response technique used in the production of wool.
If you’re an eagle-eyed follower of the recent Sea Shanty shenanigans, you’ll pick up on the fact that the song battling for number one, Wellerman, is actually not in call-and-response format. It, technically, is not a sea shanty, but in fact just a really good folk song. I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor.
Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat
Many shanties, back when they were actually being used for their purpose of getting work done, were not rhythmically stable. The tempo was highly unsteady and the calls/responses were overlapped significantly – this was purposeful. It gave the shanty, and therefore the crew, a raw sense of momentum and frenzy.
Boats and Ho’s
“Haul her away” “ho!” “blow boys blow” are just a few examples of the language used in shanties, and not by accident. Heavy consonants, Ds Bs and Hs, are key features in the lyric component of a shanty. They use a lot of air, engage the core, and set up a huge amount of compression in our muscle groups. These large exhales were used in moments of work – a push, pull, or other.
Who knew vocal syllable content was so intrinsically linked to hoisting a sail.
Tik Tok is more than social media
It feels like we’ve come a long way from the ice bucket challenge, although I’d trade that for the Tide pod trend any day.
Given the gravitas of the world’s situation, it seems that the mega-viral sensations of the hour all hold a little more weight, seriousness, and thoughtfulness than the usual silliness. I know, I know, a sea shanty isn’t serious, but it isn’t Gangnam Style either.
With no live music and no religious gatherings, group singing has been all but wiped out for close to a year. But group singing is an enormously powerful method of human connection, and the humans of Tik Tok didn’t hold back on the potential for collaboration that the platform allowed them.
Community and creativity prevail
Tik Tok gave people in different countries, time zones and cultures, in the middle of a pandemic, the opportunity to sing together. First, came the user-generated, crowdsourced, highly legitimate Ratatouille musical. Bizarre, brilliant, and completely unique. In the wake of the Ratatousical, the Sea Shanty stood up: the call and response, the easy melodies, the triumphant coming-togetherness of it all made for the perfect musical format to go viral.
This swelling undercurrent of democratised creativity, made possible by Tik Tok, has allowed the global constraints and barriers to collaboration and connection right now to be completely torn down, in a remarkable fashion.
Cross-border collaboration and virtual creativity isn’t entirely new, but on this scale, and particularly in a non, or even semi-professional environment is an astounding achievement. So I think we can all say with confidence that community and creativity, no matter the challenges of the day, will never be stopped. We will always find ways to create and connect.
Maybe I’m looking into it too much – perhaps it’s just that we’d all absolutely love to be on a boat singing with our pals and clinking tankards of ale. Maybe.