‘Sea Shanty’: Now It’s Yo, Ho, Ho and a TikTok Duet
With future historians If you look back on the early weeks of 2021, you might be scratching your head at a seemingly inexplicable cultural trend: the seafaring revival.
“Shanties” are traditionally songs sung by seafarers to the rhythm of their work on board merchant ships. But these days they are sung by all sorts of people on the TikTok video sharing app, where the nautical tunes have become such an unlikely viral phenomenon that they inspired the hashtag #ShantyTok.
It all started at the end of December when a Scottish postal worker named Nathan Evans uploaded his interpretation of an old whaling song from New Zealand: “Wellerman may come soon”. With TikTok’s duet feature, others joined Mr. Evans, adding vocals and instrumental accompaniment. Since then, #seashanty-tagged videos have seen more than three billion views, and online searches for “sea shanties” have skyrocketed, according to Google Trends.
Historically, “Shanty” was written as “Chanty” or “Chantey” and dates back to its earliest printed appearances in the mid-19th century. These spellings indicate a connection to the French word “chanter”, which means “to sing”, or more precisely to the imperative form of the verb “chantez”. The spelling “Shanty” may have been influenced by a homonym referring to a roughly built wooden house (etymologically not related to the other “Shanty”, but also with French roots).
The trend starter “Wellerman may come soon” is, as Stickler noted, actually not a shanty song in the traditional sense.
In a memoir from 1856, the journalist Charles Nordhoff reported how, as a young man in Mobile Bay off the coast of Alabama, he observed gangs of mostly English and Irish seamen carrying cotton bales into the holds of ships. The workers kept their rhythm up with “songs, rough and rude”: “The foreman is the chanty man who sings the song, the gang that just joins the choir.”
Until 1868 the word was found in British sources, now spelled “Shanty”. In August of this year, a writer in Once a Week, London, stated that “shanty” is “a word that those who are curious about etymology can instantly associate with“ song ”and“ the name used ” a class of songs that are little known to compatriots. He goes on to describe Shanties as “the songs poor Jack wants to liven up his work with,” using “Jack” as a generic name for a merchant seaman.
From that point on, “Chantey” or “Chanty” was preferred in American usage, while the spelling “Shanty” prevailed in Great Britain and the Commonwealth. To date, many US dictionaries, such as those published by Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, use “Chantey” as the primary spelling of the word.
More “word on the street”
But as the latest online trend shows, it is the “shanty” spelling that has become far more common around the world. This also applies to New Zealand, the source of the TikTok favorite “Soon May the Wellerman Come”. Modern vocal groups have continued the tradition, such as New Zealand’s Wellington Sea Shanty Society, which recorded their own version of “Wellerman” on Volume 3 of the wonderfully titled “Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties” album. 1. “
However, as Stickler noted, “Wellerman” is actually not a sailor’s song in the traditional sense because it was never intended as a work song. Rather, it is more likely to be classified as a whaling ballad or a sea song. It tells the story of New Zealand sailors who hunt a whale and wait for supplies from a supply ship named “Wellerman” after the Weller Brothers, merchants of the 19th century.
While a real shanty like “What should we do with a drunken sailor?” is in a form suitable for a call and an answer accompanying work tasks on a ship. “Wellerman” with its story of an endless whale hunt would have been sung for entertainment. Such terminological nuances, however, are of little importance for anyone who joins the rousing chorus of the song on TikTok: “Soon may Wellerman come to bring us sugar, tea and rum.”
Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8