Why global TikTok phenomenon 'Wellerman' isn't actually a sea shanty

Bristol-based sea shanty group The Longest Johns explain why 'Wellerman' isn't technically a sea shanty and why, in fact, only about a third of their repertoire could be classed as shanties

Published: October 18, 2021 at 12:59 pm

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.

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'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.'

Their version of 'Wellerman' entered the UK Top 40 singles chart, helped secure them a record label contract with Decca Records and ensured a sellout Bristol leg of their upcoming tour. The group's first album for Decca, Smoke & Oakum, has also just been announced and is due for release on 21 January.

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So, what actually makes a song a sea shanty? We explain here what a sea shanty is and how you can decipher between a maritime song and a shanty.

Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

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.

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