Shanty mad: why the age-old folk tradition of the sea shanty has made a comeback
Once sung by sailors out at sea, shanties took the world by storm during the darkest days of lockdown. Freya Parr investigates this surprising resurgence
Nathan Evans probably didn’t expect a 19th-century whaling song would make him famous. In December 2020, the UK was in yet another lockdown and we were all stuck at home scrolling on our phones. One video stood out. In just over a week, Evans’s rendition of ‘Wellerman’ had gone viral, he had quit his job as a postman and was appearing on radio stations and TV channels across the world. Singers and musicians across the internet were creating TikTok duets, adding accompaniments and harmonies. Even Brian May and Andrew Lloyd Webber joined in.
‘I ended up getting a manager, a lawyer, an accountant and a record label within a week,’ says Evans. His original video gained over 19 million views and has earned him a recording contract, a book deal and a Brit nomination for Song of the Year. Two-hundred years after their heyday, sea shanties are enjoying mainstream global success. They proved to be the perfect antidote to the cabin fever we were all experiencing. ‘These songs were designed to keep morale high on boats,’ Evans explains. ‘Everyone enjoyed being able to sing along, stamp their feet and clap their hands.’
Eager to learn more about shanties, many people turned to streaming platforms to find ‘Wellerman’ and were met with limited options. Bristolian folk band The Longest Johns secured the market, as their 2018 recording of ‘Wellerman’ was one of the best on offer. Several million plays and an entry into the UK Top 40 later, The Longest Johns were signed to Decca. It felt like everyone was suddenly talking about shanties. In fact, Google reported that in the month of Evans’s TikTok release, the term ‘sea shanty’ had been searched more than in any time in the search engine’s history.
What was it about this unique folk tradition that captivated us all? ‘Shanties are passed down through the generations via word of mouth, so it’s only the catchiest parts of the song that get remembered,’ says Robbie Sattin from The Longest Johns. ‘When you listen to songs like “Santiana” or “Haul Away Joe”, you’re actually listening to the interpretation of what hundreds and hundreds of different people remembered.’ That’s why shanties are so easy to learn. You’d be hard pressed to sit through a rendition of ‘John Kanaka’ without picking up the tune, thanks to the relentless call and response between the ‘shantyman’ and the rest of the crew.
As with much folk music, the origins of shanty singing are doubtful and often hotly debated among historians, academics and the singers themselves. Although these days a shanty is considered to be any kind of nautical song based around themes of the sea, this was not always the case. Historically, only sailors’ work songs would be classified as shanties. ‘The core definition of a shanty is a song that used specific rhythms and was created for a specific job,’ says The Longest Johns member Andy Yates.
Shanties are divided into capstan and halyard songs, used for heaving (pushing) and hauling (pulling) respectively. Heaving the capstan was an arduous, labour-intensive job, so the shanties sung here were usually longer, more rhythmic and with more of a storytelling element. Halyard shanties were used to keep men in time while pulling ropes or undertaking tasks which required breaks. ‘If we’re going on technical terms, “Wellerman” isn’t a sea shanty – it’s a folk song,’ Yates explains. ‘It wasn’t used on boats as a work song during the 18th century. It was a maritime song used for recreational purposes.’
That said, The Longest Johns aren’t evangelical about this. They’re simply in it to have a good time and sing sea songs together. ‘Probably only about a third of our repertoire would technically be defined as a shanty,’ they confess. ‘It doesn’t matter, though. It’s all about joining in and the fun that can be had.’
Today, there are hundreds of shanty crews spread across the UK, all interpreting the genre slightly differently. Following the viral #SeaShantyTikTok trend, the city of Bristol launched its inaugural Sea Shanty Festival, bringing together ten of the best shanty crews from the southwest for a day of singing around its historic harbour. While there might be similarities between the groups, there’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to shanty singing. Batten Down the Hatches was one of the festival’s smallest groups, with three bearded men dressed in authentic handmade historic dress. While they performed on board the SS Great Britain, around the corner were The Harry Browns, who believe themselves to be one of the UK’s most longstanding shanty crews. Their approach is rather different, with men and women bedecked in matching polo t-shirts – even accompanied by a fiddle player.
The decision to add harmonies and instruments seems to be a major point of division for shanty groups today. Batten Down the Hatches decided to stick to a more ‘authentic’ approach. ‘These work songs served a purpose, so we can’t imagine they were sung in four-part harmony,’ they explain. ‘Most of the time they’d have been grunted, because hauling’s hard work.’ But there’s no animosity or judgment towards the groups doing it differently. ‘The good thing about the shanty scene is the diversity. Groups like us keep it simple with pure, powerful vocals, but there are others that add in interesting harmonies. If we all did the same, it’d be blinkin’ boring.’ Nathan Evans has experimented with the format more than most. What would 19th-century sailors have made of his ‘Wellerman’ dance remix, complete with synthesised drumbeats and heavy bassline?
This isn’t the first time shanties have enjoyed a renaissance. In 2010, a shanty crew from Port Isaac known as the Fisherman’s Friends signed a million-pound recording contract with Universal Records. While they kept their day jobs as fishermen in Cornwall, they toured the country and even performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Their story was later made into a feature film, the sequel of which is due to arrive in cinemas this April. Shanties have even managed to infiltrate the world of video games, with ‘Leave Her, Johnny’ and ‘Running Down to Cuba’ taking centre stage in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. This trend has been harnessed by The Longest Johns, who host regular livestreams of themselves playing Sea of Thieves, a video game set on a pirate ship. They communicate with other players via headsets, singing shanties as they go.
In the concert hall, songs of the sea are no stranger to audiences. Every year, the Last Night of the Proms is punctuated by Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, a medley of maritime music written in 1905 to mark the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. When Wood wrote his Fantasia, many of the folk songs were collected by the likes of Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Cecil Sharp. Today, shanty singers rely on different methods to find new music. ‘In the folk music world, you don’t steal songs – you collect them,’ says Bryn Stephens of The Roaring Trowmen. ‘We find songs on YouTube and hear them at festivals and then perform them ourselves.’ Others will turn to lively internet forums or history books to find new material. ‘The collections of Cicely Fox Smith are a really good resource,’ says Helen Stanley, fiddle player for The Harry Browns. ‘As well as writing her own maritime poems, she travelled around the world collecting sea poems and stories which were later set to music.’
Whether you’re in a rowdy Cornish pub on a Saturday night or at one of the UK’s major shanty festivals, it’s impossible to not be swept up in the joy of shanty singing. ‘For us, it’s as much a social thing as a musical thing,’ say High and Dry, a shanty group based in the Mendip Hills who spearheaded the launch of Bristol’s shanty festival. For The Harry Browns, the ethos is equally simple. ‘We’ll sing wherever there is beer. Ultimately, it all comes down to beer.’
After the last two years of lockdowns and social distancing, there’s something wonderfully comforting about being able to get together, have a beer and sing a few songs that have been sung for generations. Shanties aren’t supposed to sit in books, untouched. They deserve to be roared at the top of singers’ lungs, while feet are stamped and tankards of beer are banged repeatedly against wooden tables. Or, perhaps, shared across the internet with a guitar duet from Brian May.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.