Music

Junk Explained: Why Is Everyone Suddenly Singing Sea Shanties Again Like It’s The 1500s?

Who would've thought a song about an Aussie whaling company from the 1800s would be what unites the world?

Sea Shanty Sea Shanties TIkTok

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2021 has already been quite the doozy, so it’s really no surprise that people are turning to a 200-year-old New Zealand sea shanty for comfort and joy.

Yes, you read that right. The internet seems to be absolutely obsessed with songs traditionally sung by sailors as they did manual tasks aboard merchant ships — and it’s all thanks to a 26-year-old postman from Scotland.

Despite sea shanties dating back to at least the mid-1400s, over the last few weeks Nathan Evans has been sharing his renditions of his favourite ye’ olde sea shanties — like ‘The Scotsman‘, ‘The Last Shanty‘ and his most popular track, ‘The Wellerman‘ which has since become the unofficial TikTok sea shanty anthem.

While sea shanties were traditionally used as a way for sea men to keep in sync and to maintain rhythm while working aboard the ships, today these shanties have become a new way for people to collaborate and connect across the globe.

Much like how the TikTok Ratatouille musical operated, SeaShantyTok is built on creators transforming a song that already exists by using Evans audio or by creating duet chains from his original ‘Wellerman’ video.

While the idea of a number of layered voices, harmonies and instruments over one audio track can sound overwhelming, it actually works well. This is because traditionally sea shanties would be led by a single shantyman, with the rest of the crew joining in. So when it comes to ‘Wellerman’, Evans acts as the shantyman, with the rest of SeaShantyTok falling into the crew role.

And the result? Surprisingly magical stuff with seemingly limitless possibilities.

Why ‘Wellerman’, Though?

Despite a number of sea shanties existing in the world, ‘Wellerman’ seems to have become a very clear favourite on TikTok. But in a modern context, the track’s lyrics make very little sense, which, considering the New Zealand sea shanty dates back to the mid-19th century, is not at all surprising.

“There once was a ship that put to sea,
And the name of that ship was the Billy o’ Tea
The winds blew hard, her bow dipped down,
Blow, me bully boys, blow!

Soon may the Wellerman come
to bring us sugar and tea and rum.
One day, when the tonguing’ is done,
We’ll take our leave and go.”

A number of sources report that the song is in direct reference to the men who worked under The Weller Bros, an Australian shore-wailing company that operated along the New Zealand coast in the 1800s.

Sources also say that the Wellerman referenced throughout the folksong is actually the Weller Bros. supply ships that would provide staples to the workers — like sugar and rum — as a form of payment, instead of money. Similarly, the “tonguing” sung about is the process of cutting blubber off beached carcasses, which were boiled down into whale oil and exchanged for their pay of staples.

Even though the conditions sung about aren’t relatable to really anyone in the 21st century, it is quite refreshing to see the internet connected over such a silly thing like singing old and obscure songs about whaling together.

But if you can’t sing, don’t stress. The most joyous videos on SeaShantyTok are actually just those of people enjoying these folksongs with their friends, figuring out that they privately enjoy a sea shanty or two themselves, or turning the Wellerman into its own ~sugar and rum~ meme.

And luckily for those who still think the classic sea shanty isn’t really their cup of tea, there’s always the electronic club banger remixes to ease them into the world of SeaShantyTok.