Archive for music


The New Age of Sea Shanties

One positive thing to come from the pandemic and related lockdowns and isolation is that people have been exploring new things, with some delightful results.

One of the latest trends has been a new wave of discovery of sea shanties, the old work songs sailors sang to help them coordinate their actions — when you need a lot of people to pull or push at the same time, music is a great way to get everyone on the same tempo. Someone posted a video singing a sea shanty on TikTok, and then other people added on to it, bringing in harmony and instruments, and it went around the Internet to the point that people all over the world were walking around singing “Soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.”

Here’s a compilation someone put together that brings in some of the better additions.

I think part of what makes this so entertaining is the collaboration, that people who’ve never met are making something lovely together. There have been other things kind of like this, like when a bunch of people created a musical about a scene taking place in a grocery store, with one guy singing a song, then someone turning it into a romantic duet, and then others bringing in the perspective of other people nearby. It was beautiful and hilarious. But the sea shanty is designed to be sung as a group, so it really lends itself to this kind of collaboration. I wish I had the chops to pitch in, but I don’t even want to deal with TikTok, and while I’ve got a decent singing voice, I don’t have the music theory to be able to improvise harmonies. Give me sheet music and I’ll do well, but without someone telling me what to sing I’m pretty hopeless.

Of course, fantasy writers perked up at this whole trend because it’s the sort of thing that adds color to a fantasy world. There’s something romantic and stirring about voices rising together on an old sailing ship. I realized it was exactly the touch for an idea I’ve been playing with. The sound and the imagery of this video out of Norway, with men in the rigging singing their way into port, is probably going to make it into a book. They seem to be singing in English, oddly enough, but apparently it’s an Australian shanty, with them just changing part of the words to “in Norway” instead of the original — but the “Norway” is English because in Norwegian it’s “Norge.”

The musical collaboration is really making me miss choir. We’ve done some pieces where everyone records their part at home and it gets edited together, but that’s so isolating. With this sort of thing, the later people are at least singing along with the earlier people. I miss the sensation of singing with others. We had a couple of attempts at rehearsals, outdoors, wearing masks and standing at a distance, but then you might as well be singing alone because you can’t really hear the other people.

So I guess I’ll sit at home and sing sea shanties with people on the Internet. I can feel like I’m singing along, though I’m not going to record it and post it online.


The Joy of Mix Tapes

When I wasn’t in choir rehearsals over the weekend, I continued my ongoing organization project, and I’ve found another big stash of things I hadn’t thought about: cassette tapes.

I’m old enough to have had a fairly big music collection from before the CD era, and even after I got a CD player, I had a car with a cassette player until 2008, so I have a collection that includes things I bought on cassette, a bunch of recordings of CDs (so I could listen to them in the car or on my Walkman), and then tons of mix tapes.

For those too young for the pre-digital music era, a mix tape was basically a playlist in physical form. It was a way of putting together a variety of music for listening to in the car, a way of sharing a sampling of things you liked with your friends, or a way of showing someone you were getting to know just who you were musically. I have playlists curated specifically for certain drives or moods or events. There’s the tape I used to play in when I was driving home from Austin when I was in college. I put it in at a certain point on the trip, and just hearing the first song takes me to a particular time and place. There’s a mix tape of movie love themes that I used when I was sick and having trouble falling asleep because of coughing fits. Somehow, listening to the music distracted me from the coughing reflex, and the tape would cut off on its own after I was asleep. There were tapes I made when I was depressed after a breakup, full of angry songs, and tapes I made when I had a crush, full of love songs.

It’s funny how much music on the go has evolved. At one time, a big part of packing for a road trip involved carefully selecting (and finding) the tapes that would go in my carrying case. Then I got the current car, which has a CD player that plays MP3 CDs, and I started burning playlists to CDs. It was kind of like making a mix tape, but I could fit about 11 hours of music on it instead of about 90 minutes. Now, I just bring my iPhone, and it has far more than ever would have fit in my case. I estimate that my packing time for road trips has decreased by at least half an hour, an hour if I don’t make a new playlist for the trip.

I still have some cassette players and do use them occasionally. I’m narrowing down what I’m keeping to things I only have on cassette — especially things that don’t exist on CD — and some mix tapes. I have a few cassette carrying cases that I got when a writing organization I was in got rid of their library of workshop tapes, so I’m only keeping what fits in those cases. Now begins the process of narrowing them down, which is turning into quite the nostalgia fest. I’m going to end up just sitting there, listening to 80s music, at some point, I’m sure. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of “orphaned” tapes separated from their cases, and many of them are unlabeled. It’s like playing a game of Concentration to match tapes with their cases.