Until recently, sea shanties were considered a music genre of a bygone era, occasionally serving as background music to “SpongeBob SquarePants” episodes. Sea shanties are traditional rhythmic folk songs sung by sailors aboard large European merchant ships to make manual labor seem more lively. Sea shanties are experiencing a rise in popularity in 2021 due to the social media app, TikTok. This rise in popularity can be traced back to Nathan Evans’ TikTok rendition of “The Wellerman.” Evans’ post went viral, inspiring other young people to use the TikTok duet feature to sing along, harmonize and add musical instruments to Evans’ original video.
The resurgence of sea shanties comes at an interesting time in pop culture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions, young people are feeling increasingly isolated and lonely. Sea shanties are meant to be sung as a crew and typically aren’t difficult to learn. They give a sense of camaraderie through difficult times and often revolve around themes of loneliness at sea, adventure, strenuous labor and hope for a brighter future. While old-time sailors may have led very different lives than young people in 2021, we can find comfort and a sense of similarity in their songs of strife, hard times, isolation and hope for better days. Listed below are several sea shanties we recommend for anyone new to and interested in the music genre.
This whaling ballad originated in New Zealand in the 1860s. The song describes a whale hunt that destroys several ships. In the chorus, the sailors sing of hope that a relief ship, which will provide them with sugar, tea and rum, will be coming to help them soon. “The Wellerman” was repopularized by Nathan Evans on TikTok. This shanty is my personal favorite, as it has a beautiful melody and an enticing synopsis. Listeners can easily learn the lyrics, harmonize and sing along. The ingrained sense of hope and optimism despite being in a dire situation can resonate with modern audiences living through the coronavirus pandemic.
“Drunken Sailor” may be the liveliest and most well known of the popular sea shanties. It originated as a work song aboard any ship with a large number of sailors. The tune is taken from a traditional Irish folk song and is upbeat and humorous as the captain and crew sing of all the possible ways to sober up a sailor who has had a little too much to drink.
“Leave Her, Johnny”
“Leave Her, Johnny” was typically sung when sailors were about to disembark a ship for the final time. The woman that the song refers to is actually the ship the sailors are about to leave. The song served as a way for sailors to let out pent up sadness and emotions during their journey.
“Rolling Down to Old Maui”
This song sings of the crew of a whaling ship returning home to Maui after spending six months hunting for whales in the Kamchatka Sea near Russia. The song is slower than most sea shanties, but it provides a sense of relief and excitement to come home to warmer weather and more forgiving, welcoming conditions.