Perfect timing: an Irish academic’s sea shanty book boosted by a TikTok trend
Gerry Smyth’s maritime worksong study got a rush release when the genre took off
Fishermen singing a sea shanty circa 1870. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Shanty-singing is all about timing. Everyone needs to be working to the same rhythm and singing the same words at the same time; everyone needs to be performing the same action at the same time in order for the job to be undertaken as efficiently as possible.
The shanty was more than just a boost to morale or an alleviation of boredom (although it was certainly those things): it was a vital onboard practice, as important to the efficient operation of the 19th-century wind-powered sailing vessel as were the sails, the capstan or the sextant.
Recently I noted a different kind of timing at work in relation to this marginal genre: the release of my postponed book on the history of the shanty tradition right in the middle of a global shanty-singing craze! In fact, the British Library rush-released Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas in January in order to catch a TikTok-generated shanty wave that was nearing its crest. This is how it happened.
In the pandemic summer of 2020, a young Scottish postman named Nathan Evans uploaded a version of a traditional shanty called Soon May the Wellerman Come to the video-sharing site TikTok. This versatile platform allows users to overlay original musical material with their own additions, and it was this practise which turned Evans’ song into an online phenomenon in the latter months of last year.
People from all around the world began recording and uploading their musical accompaniment (mostly vocal but some instrumental) to The Wellerman. The trend was confirmed when Spotify announced the emergence of shanty as a trending playlist genre, shortly after which Kermit the Frog uploaded a video of himself singing in his own distinctive style. Since then, Evans has been awarded a lucrative recording contract, and the song reached No 2 in the British charts.
This is where I come in. In 2018 I had been commissioned by the British Library to write a book on shanties. I have been interested in the history of shanty-singing since I first moved to the English seaside town of Hoylake in Wirral, near Liverpool where I work at one of the city’s universities.
Nathan Evans - Wellerman (TikTok Sea Shanty)
Mostly this interest takes the form of researching, learning, recording and performing the songs, in which capacity I have produced three albums since 2010. On occasion, I also found my interest in the form spilling over into my professional work where, amongst other things, I retain an interest in popular music of all kinds. This connection resulted in two pieces of published research: the most recent, a chapter on shanty aesthetics included in my book on music in the life and work of James Joyce; the first, an article (published in the Journal of Maritime History) on the influence of Irish music on shanty-singing in the 19th century. It was this publication which landed me the British Library gig.
Sailor Song was finished in early 2020, with a view to publication in late spring in order to develop a publicity campaign over the summer festival months. There was to be an American version – published by the University of Washington Press – which hoped to garner some interest over there.
The volume comprises an historical and technical introduction to the form, plus musical transcriptions and commentaries on 40 of the most well-known shanties as well as 10 typical maritime ballads. It promised to be a handsome publication, with photographs and images from the library’s extensive holdings, as well as a number of original paintings by the Scottish folk artist Jonny Hannah.
We all know what happened next.
The British Library decided to defer UK release for at least a year (although interestingly the American publication went ahead in June 2020). The revised April publication date was a few months down the line – there was no rush; who knows, we might even be out of lockdown by then! Things were ambling along sedately when the editors and I more or less simultaneously became aware of the tsunami of shanty interest bearing down upon us. At a hastily convened Zoom editorial, it was decided to get the book out of the warehouse and into the (virtual) shops as soon as possible – hence the rush release towards the end of January.
It’s been amusing to observe the process whereby I suddenly became the “go-to” guy for what promises to be one of the pandemic’s abiding memories: New York Times, BBC, Times Literary Supplement, Spectator – they all wanted a piece of the shanty action, and I have been invariably positioned as the professional voice who can provide the truth behind the trend. Among all this interest, two issues persist: Is The Wellerman really a shanty? And why has this particular niche form been thrust so rapidly and so forcefully into the global spotlight?
In technical terms, the song inspiring Shanty Tok is not actually a shanty. It would be highly impractical to have a work team waiting around while the shantyman gets through the first four lines of the song. Soon May the Wellerman Come is in fact a whaling ballad which references some of the shanty’s characteristic traits – particularly the setting, the underlying pulse and the chorus’s unison sing-along. Nineteenth-century sailors sang ballads while off duty, and sometimes ballads were adapted for shanty use. In its TikTok form, however, the song does not answer the requirements of the traditional maritime work song.
Many outlets (including a number to which I did not actually speak) have seen fit to spin this opinion as some variation on a “Professor versus Postie” narrative, suggesting (as if we didn’t already know) that conflict is the oil that greases the media machine. In fact, the shanty was always a fragmented, insecure discourse, resistant to all attempts to define it in strict historical, geographical or generic terms. The real takeaway here is that if enough people want to call The Wellerman a shanty, then such it is, irrespective of my opinion.
The second issue – that of the shanty’s function at the present time – is, despite much fanciful speculation, a question for posterity. My suspicion is that it may have more to do with media algorithms than with lockdown psychology. Time will tell; and for the shanty, as I mentioned at the outset, timing is everything.
Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas by Gerry Smyth is published by University of Washington Press in the US and by The British Library