The definition of a ‘shanty’ is often disputed within the folk community by historians, experts and even shanty singers themselves. Although we now think of a sea shanty as any kind of nautical folk music based around themes of the sea, a shanty is actually something much more specific.
‘Hard-line shanty singers will often argue that a shanty shouldn’t have harmonies and should be sung in unison,’ Bristol-based shanty group The Longest Johns told us. ‘The core definition of a shanty is a song that was sung using specific rhythms and created for a specific job.’
What does that mean in practice? Does this effect what we think of as the ‘sea shanty canon’?
‘If we’re going on technical terms, ‘Wellerman’ isn’t a sea shanty – it’s a folk song,’ The Longest Johns explain. ‘It wasn’t used on boats as a work song when it was used during the 18th century. It was a maritime song that was used for recreational purposes.’ This will shock many #SeaShantyTikTok fans, who followed the viral trend earlier this year, when Scottish postman Nathan Evans became one of TikTok’s most familiar voices, thanks to his version of the ‘non-shanty’ ‘Wellerman’.
Obviously, The Longest Johns aren’t evangelical about this. They’re in it for the same reasons we are – to have a good time and sing songs of the sea together. ‘We think 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.’