In another sign that 2021 will be no more reasonable than last year, a centuries-old music style has washed up on TikTok: sea shanties. The steady pulse and harmonies of songs like “The Wellerman” are resonating at large. Quickly, a version posted by Scottish singer Nathan Evans gathered 7.6 million views, and left in its wake ShantyTok, a community of videos in which people accompany Evans’s take.
Although the larger TikTok population may be new to the sea shanty scene, Seattle is well-acquainted. Organizations like the Seattle-based Maritime Folknet work to preserve nautical history of the Pacific Northwest through music by holding events where people perform and sing traditional maritime folk music. (The organization even released a compilation of self-explanatory songs in 2010: Northwest Tugboat Tales.) Shanties are historically working songs sung by sailors to keep time as they turned the capstan, among other jobs on the boats. Helen Gilbert, vice president of Maritime Folknet, emphasizes that shanties aren’t just work songs—sailors also sang during breaks and while on shore leave to foster a sense of community.
The pandemic makes it harder to maintain such community in Seattle, but not impossible. Events like Northwest Seaport’s monthly Chantey Sings still happen virtually and are open to new members (see below for a pre-pandemic event—it'll make you warm inside). “It’s really easy for people to get into it because you don’t have to know a song,” says Gilbert. “You can just come along and sing along to the choruses.”
The catchy songs and collaborative opportunities may be what attracted TikTok to the genre. By sharing their renditions and editing each other’s videos, users formed their own version of a sea shanty community that seems like the latest attempt to make up for the lack of in-person social interaction. “It’s just something that you really don’t experience anywhere else,” says Gilbert. “It’s this wonderful togetherness—the singing together, the harmonizing.”
But the trend wouldn’t be true to TikTok without a few remixes thrown in. What some now call “electro shanty” is a product of putting EDM behind the traditional folk music to create a rave-worthy combination. Even this represents a few of the Maritime Folknet’s goals: to create songs that preserve present day maritime stories for the future and to involve younger generations with the genre. Seeing people learn about sea shanties through social media is a welcome effect for Gilbert. “Hopefully someday, in a couple hundred years, people will still be singing those songs.”