We need to talk about sea shanties.
A sea shanty topping the charts? The word unprecedented finally has a new setting.
You weren’t alone if you did a double take upon hearing “Find out this afternoon if sea shanty ‘Wellerman’ will make it to the top of the chart!” on BBC Radio 1’s breakfast show on Friday morning. Nothing is predictable right now – need I remind you – but a sea shanty topping the charts? The word unprecedented finally has a new setting.
Scottish postman Nathan Evans’ version of Wellerman, above, started the boom of shanty popularity, and led him to a 3-record album deal with Polydor.
The world is changing – creativity has never been democratised like this before. And the challenges of global lockdowns have actually opened immense opportunities for innovative, novel, fresh approaches to creating. Ratatouille: The Tik-Tok Musical I thought would be the ultimate pinnacle of this. Can you blame me?
But here we are. The unstoppable, rising tide of sea shanties through the world of #ShantyTok is a fairly remarkable case study for marketers, creatives and brands alike, all unfolding in real time. We interviewed one of the main instigators, Jonny Stewart, for an insight into everything shantyland.
WTF is a sea shanty?
Perhaps you’re thinking, I’ve not heard of this sea shanty thing? What the hell’s going on? Why should I care about this? Well Grandad, let me and baritone-turned-shantyman, Jonny Stewart, catch you up right here.
Jonny is a rising sea shanty star (what a title!), has 5M+ views of the original shanty video on Twitter, has been interviewed by Forbes magazine, and off the back of unexpected Tik Tok success, is part of the newly formed shanty group The Wellermen, who released a single last week. Let’s go back to the very beginning though, shall we.
E: Ok, tell me what actually happened. Where did this begin?
J: Just after Christmas, a postman from Scotland called Nathan Evans who had done a few sea shanty videos, posted a version of Wellerman. A 19 year old bass from Pennsylvania, Luke Taylor, then duetted it and from that point it spiralled on Tik Tok into a million different directions.
(To “duet” something on tik tok means to take someone else’s video and record yourself on top of it – which can be done again and again and again.)
Sea Shanties are all about building up the texture and it was a really natural thing for people to do and easy to participate in – they’re designed to be easy to sing.
E: How did you get involved?
J: A few of my friends on the app had done a duet along this chain and it multiplied and splintered off into a spiders web of different harmonies. I picked one and added my own baritone line to it.
The video was then posted on twitter – and it got around 5 million views. That was when mainstream media started getting involved, The Late Show in the states with Stephen Colbert, Channel 4 news and some Australian channels picked it up. People were aware that sea shanties were more popular now, but this was really the apex of it. The New Yorker and Forbes started doing big articles about sea shanties.
E : Incredible. And in your opinion, why did it blow up just so much?
J: We’re stuck inside, it’s a pandemic, we can’t see people that we like. Any community feeling and spirit is so fractured right now.
Everyone and anyone can sing along with a sea shanty – it is designed to be sung as a community to get through mundane things.
In retrospect it makes perfect sense, but I don’t think anyone could’ve really seen this coming.
E: No, certainly not. So where is it at now?
J: The original person who did the video, Nathan, has a 3 album deal with Polydor now. Which is big, madness. And wonderful for him.
We got contacted by other labels about putting together a collaborative album or group with other Tik Tok people, so the version that came out last Monday was off the back of that.
It would be really cool to do a much bigger collaborative version, a full album and getting other people from Tik Tok involved with that. Part of the magic of the sea shanty is that it’s a collaboration and you get lots of people adding their own thing… but this makes it difficult to distill into a commercially viable product because you do have to stop somewhere.
E: In terms of commercialising the whole thing, record labels seem to be moving really quickly to capitalise on this surge in popularity, what are your thoughts on that?
J: We wouldn’t want to put anything out that was inauthentic – it would have to be very respectful and not like an easy grab. As with any trend, the potential to be exploitative is rife, so anything we do has to be respectful to the traditions and to other artists who have been doing this for years without any of this attention. (See: The Long John’s and the true Cornwall originals, Fishermans Friends).
For The Long John’s, whose entire existence has been singing sea shanties, this is absolutely perfect.
E: And finally, is this just a fad trend right now or do you think it’s got some real longevity and mileage behind it?
It’s hard to predict. Most people I know from the music world would not listen to a sea shanty intentionally until maybe this year, which is great because there is so much music to look into, explore and learn about.
The joy of a shanty is that it gives us a sense of community that none of us have right now – so in the short and medium term it’ll keep going, but long term, who knows! I’m sure the “let’s hunker down and sing the wellerman in our kitchen” thought will dissipate a little when we’re back to normal, but if it’s handled the right way there’s no reason that this couldn’t go on.
Jonny is the founder and music director of London based vocal band NoVi. They’re working on an original album at the minute, and no, to my dismay…there won’t be any shanties on it. But here is their stunning cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which I would highly recommend.
There’s a little bit more to the story.
Whilst Jonny’s insights are spot on – the community element of the sea shanty is truly palpable – I wanted to dig deeper on this. Why not just group singing in general? Why a shanty? I couldn’t give it up. So here is part two: the music theory behind the shanty, and why it works so bloody well on the internet.
If the theory behind sea shanties just simply isn’t your thing, that’s pretty understandable. Maybe just enjoy some of them – here you are.