TikTok sea shanties and the way life beneath the pandemic has mirrored months at sea
Historically, chanteys – also spelled as “shanties” or “chanties” – began with a crew member chant recognized as a “chanteyman,” usually someone valued for their voice and extemporal ability. Fellow sailors responded with the refrain as they struggled with their chores. Now we see TikTok and Twitter users offering their followers songs inspired by Chanteys, often accompanied by the hashtag #seashanty.
As a Chantey scholar, I am intrigued by the sudden surge in interest in the genre, which dates back to the 15th century and gained popularity in the late 19th century, just before wooden ships gave way to steamers.
The chantey has historically been a relief valve for loneliness, fear, and oppression. It is no coincidence that the Chantey made a triumphant return when we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic – the scourge of inequality is growing day by day.
Sing to fears
Seafarers were often at sea for several months – sometimes years – at the same time.
Working on the ship could be tedious and monotonous. But sporadic dangers lurked time and again, from storms to accidents on board, creating an undercurrent of fear that tended to confront the crews with a sick sense of humor.
Richard Henry Dana Jr., the author of a popular 1840 treatise about the two years he spent on a ship, wrote: “You must make a joke of everything at sea; and if you fell from above and were caught in the belly of a sail, and so saved from instant death, it would not be enough to look disturbed at all or to make it serious. “
Take George Gordon’s example of the chantey “Blow the Man Down”. In it, the sailor watches in horror as a beautiful woman transforms from a “pretty young maiden” to a completely different one, while she removes her ear, leg, teeth and one eye. Like life at sea, excitement and pleasure quickly turn into terror.
The important thing is that the songs also had a use. In the words of the historian Marcus Rediker, cooperation on the ships was “a collectivism of necessity”.
Merchant ships hired men from different backgrounds. The songs were a common language that cemented the crew’s bond while also setting a rhythm for repetitive tasks like pulling that lifting sails and lifting that going over the winch might mean. In fact, authentic chantey are divided into “dragging chantey” and “lifting chantey”, although other descriptors exist.
Tell the truth about power cunningly
In their songs, seafarers told stories of women, ships, ports, groceries, captains and comrades; They spoke with manliness, desire and longing.
Chanteys were also used to counter the tyranny inherent in life on board the ship, in which a small number of people – usually the captain and his companion – ruled over the rest. The tension in this dynamic can sometimes lead to violence.
Some of the songs used what anthropologist James C. Scott called “hidden transcripts” – subtle arguments with control subjects who do not know what is being said about them.
Experienced chanteymen might aim at captains or complain about food or pay. For example, a rendition of “Blow, Boys, Blow” ends with the pointed line, “There will be Sally, Molly, Peg and Nell / and the skipper and buddy can go – – too.”
The spirit of the Chantey lives on
A lot of the songs popular on social media aren’t technically chanties. To be a real chantey, the song must be authenticated as the sea’s work song, sung on the ship, and created by seafarers for ship duties. It was indeed a taboo against singing chants on land.
Instead, they could be called sea songs, country songs, or ballads.
Even so, these songs reflect the spirit of the Chantey.
Although many of us do not float at sea, we find ourselves in strange and troubling territory, and daily life changes in ways that the merchant sailor would understand all too well – a world that, as the historian Rediker put it, Was “chronically unsafe”. ”
Perhaps we can look back on those bleak times and see some glimmers of ease and unity as people from different worlds connected on social media and realized they had “a strong and strong ship and a very good crew.” and so decided to sing their way to “everyone”.
Floyd is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of English at Baltimore County’s Community College. This was first published in The Conversation.