The Sea Shanty TikTok trend sails on

Image Credit: Melpo Tsiliaki

What’s up with the recent viral obsession with sea shanties?

TikTok is a miraculous, bizarre place. Where else can you see a centuries-old sailing tradition go viral? Depending on your age and leisure pursuits you might have noticed sea shanties have been trending on the platform and over on Twitter for the past week or so. Yep. Sea shanties. As in ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ As is the way with viral trends, once the media have caught up they’ve probably missed the boat, but it was a marvellous thing that for a while the world couldn’t get enough of the songs.

Original trendsetter, 26-year-old Scottish postman Nathan Evans, has been uploading sea shanties since July 2020, and his first video reached 1.1m views. But it was his cover of ‘The Wellerman’ that really blew up. Given the collaborative nature of the platform, singers and musicians have joined in on renditions of classic shanties and working songs in a lovely show of community and creativity, using the hashtag #ShantyTok.

‘Sea shanties’ had been searched for online more than ever before, according to Google Trends. A centuries-old tradition, the word Shanty is said to derive from the French verb ‘chanter’, to sing. Singing to a rhythmic beat helped sailors keep in time with each other as they hauled ropes and raised the anchor. The original story behind ‘The Wellerman’ has even been unearthed – the song was probably composed by a teenage sailor or whaler in New Zealand in the 1800s.

Everyone’s getting on board, with the British Library even bringing forward the publishing date of illustrated book of shanties Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas by Gerry Smith because of the buzz. The book features more than 40 shanties and 10 ballads. Imagine the possibilities.

In RouteNote’s home county the popularity of sea shanties is nothing new. Since 2003 Falmouth in Cornwall has hosted the International Sea Shanty Festival, with 65,000 people dropping anchor in the town to watch over 70 sea shanty groups in 25 venues. Cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, fingers are crossed for the event to return this year. Perhaps there’ll be new faces from Shanty TikTok joining the crew next time.  

Madeleine Amos
I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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