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.

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