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Sea Shanty TikTok Meme, Explained



In the final week of 2020, Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postman and aspiring musician, shared a video of himself on TikTok and sang a sea nugget called “Soon May the Wellerman Come” He did not expect anything to happen, but the app has a way of turning dusty esoterica into viral gold.

Over the past two weeks, his old-fashioned video has been shared and dueted thousands of times: by professional vocalists and instrumentalists, maritime enthusiasts, electronic beatmakers, memes, a Kermit the Frog puppet and more.

“If it were not for TikTok, I would be so bored and claustrophobic,”

; said Mr. Evans via Zoom. “But it can give you a sense of having a group. You can collaborate with other people and make friends so easily. ”

One of the original purposes of the seafront was to create a sense of community and common purpose. On merchant ships in the 1700s and 1800s, a shantyman led sailors in song while working, distracting them from their wear and tear, enlivening their tasks, and establishing a rhythm.

“The different kinds of built-in work and housework would have different shanties attached to them,” said Gerry Smyth, professor of Irish cultural history at Liverpool John Moore’s University and author of Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas. ”

According to Mr. Smyth’s research developed shanties to match and accelerate specific tasks. “If you pulled sails, for example, the shanty was designed around the physical effort required to achieve it,” he said. “Everyone wanted to pull at the same time,” he added, cued by the rhythm of the song.

The earliest sea bridges could be as old as the shipping itself. They use the story-sharing impulse from oral literature, which is still even older.

Singing is fun, and it lifted the sailors’ mood, Smyth said. The songs also offered a common language for multinational crews.

“This communist aesthetic, it really goes back to a very old time,” Smyth said. “When we sit around the campfire, we talk about the hunt. We gain identity through society through the underlying blow on the drum. “In these ancient storytelling traditions, everyone knew the story and played a role in telling it.

Other work songs have run on the same shared storytelling impulse. This is especially evident in the call-and-response tradition of African American folk songs and spirituals that drew on the democratic practice of participation in public life south of the Sahara.

For ski pants, the passage of time has led to some revision. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, scholars who collected sea urchins cleared the texts, much of which were quite “bawdy,” Smyth said. These collectors caught the songs cold and replaced “whores” with “beautiful girls”, removed crude language and toned down drunken nights at the pub.

In the versions that remained true to the sailors’ lives and languages, these ballads focused on what Mr. Smyth calls “the basic coordinates of the little imagination”: arriving in port and returning to the sea. Out in the big blue, they found a romanticized life of wear and tear and violence. Back on dry land, their nets stood with oozes, prostitutes and drunken sailors losing their wages at the bar and in dice games in the back street.

The recently popular “Soon May the Wellerman Come” – which the band The Longest Johns covered in 2018 – omits such naughty tales in favor of a “Moby-Dick” -like whaling adventure. Its subject matter was genuine: the Weller brothers’ whaling company owned an outpost in Otago, New Zealand. The lyrics have sailors harpooning a whale and hoisting it to the ship for slaughter.

“This well could have been an incision node,” or a song that men sang while slaughtering a whale, said Michael P. Dyer, the maritime curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

This particular task was messy; the harvesting of whale parts – oil for lit lamps and use in cosmetics, the baleen for whalebone corsets, tongue for food – was hard work. The “tongue” mentioned in texts refers to the removal of the tongue, the most edible part of the whale, according to Mr. Dyer.

As for the line “bringing us sugar, tea and rum”, some believe it may refer to the share of whaling in the triangular slave trade in the Atlantic. (Consequently, various commentators suggested that the meme had lost its charm.) Others believe that the phrase refers to another ship coming to supply whalers on their long hunt.

“‘Wellerman’ is not really a shanty,” said David Coffin, a folk musician and music educator in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a whaling song with a shanty rhythm, he said, but the purpose is a ballad – to tell a story so as not to help sailors keep time.

In any case, the form, Smyth said, is malleable, which could explain the thousands of riffs, duets and adaptations scattered online. Some people have even started covering popular songs – like “All Star”, by Smash Mouth – in a coastal frequency.

“It’s not the beauty of the song that gets people,” Coffin said. “It’s the energy.”

“It’s one of the things I love about sea urchins,” he added. “Availability. You do not have to be a trained singer to sing on it. You must not sing beautifully. ”




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