If the sea is calling to you, these days it might be through TikTok. Although the video-based social networking platform typically brings to mind dance challenges, lip-syncing and comical sketches, the latest trend to wash up on shore is singing sea shanties from centuries past. The internet has dubbed this nautical moment #ShantyTok.
Since roughly the end of December, TikTok has seen a rise in interest in videos of people not just singing sea shanties, but crafting impressive, a cappella arrangements of the tunes traditionally sung by crews on merchant sailing ships. Thanks to the platform’s capacity for collaboration, folks don’t have to be on the same ship to sing together. So far, videos tagged with #seashanty have more than 89 million views. And that number continues to grow as word spreads. On Tuesday, Google Trends tweeted that “sea shanties” had been searched more than at any other time in the platform’s history. Spotify says more than 12,000 sea shanty playlists have come into being since the end of December.
It turns out lamenting being stuck on a whaling ship while running out of rum is the favored mood for the first week of 2021.
Seemingly at the center of the whirlpool is 26-year-old Nathan Evans, a postman from outside Glasgow, Scotland, whose Dec. 27 rendition of 19th century New Zealand folk song Wellerman has surpassed 1 million views on TikTok and been incorporated into countless other TikToks. The song tells the story of whalers waiting on a resupply ship.
“It went wild. I don’t really know what happened,” says Evans, who’s mostly found on social platforms like Spotify as Nathan Evanss.
Evans, who largely posts videos of himself performing Scottish folk songs, pop covers and more recently his own material, says he can hardly believe how much people like sea shanties. He had about 45,000 followers on TikTok earlier in December, and that number has shot past 347,000.
Where do sea shanties come from?
That sea shanties have ended up on a 21st century social networking platform is an unexpected development. According to online history magazine Historic UK, sea shanties date back to at least the mid-1400s. Signing together and keeping rhythm would help crews stay synchronized for tasks like hoisting sails, when everyone needed to be pushing or pulling at the same time. Typically, there would be a main singer, or a shantyman, and the crew would come in on the chorus.
As steam power eventually spread in subsequent centuries, and there was less need for manual labor on ships, sea shanties started to die out, Historic UK says. By the 20th century, they’d nearly been forgotten. This wasn’t the end of the line for sea shanties, though. Through the years there’ve been maritime music festivals; shanties even figured into the gameplay for 2013’s , and they’ve been a staple of cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. In 2019, romantic comedy Fisherman’s Friend involved a sea shanty singing group.
What exactly is a Wellerman?
Though it’s practically impossible to pinpoint who posted the first sea shanty to TikTok and when, Evans posted his first (a song called Leave Her, Johnny) in July. It broke 1 million views, to his surprise, and garnered him new followers and requests for more. On Dec. 23, he posted The Scotsman, broken up in three videos. It was Wellerman, though, that really took off.
“Soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum. Some day when the tonguin’ is done, we’ll take our leave and go” is an unlikely earworm.
There was already love for Wellerman out there. User Jacob Doublesin started making sketches using the song in late October. His bio says he’s “Sea-EO of Wellerman.” Earlier in December, user Rysmiith uploaded his version of Wellerman and made duet versions on TikTok (you can record your own video in split screen with another), adding harmonies. Google Trends shows a smaller spike in searches for Wellerman around then, but when Evans’ version hit, the search term blew up on Google. He says things calmed down a bit within a few days, but another jolt came when 19-year-old Luke Taylor added his startling deep baritone into the mix.
Since then, people have added all kinds of harmonies:
They’ve turned it into a club-ready remix:
And plenty of folks are poking fun at the novelty of sea shanties, of all things, becoming popular on an app so often associated with the youth:
It’s hard to say why exactly this happened. It could be the quirk factor, or the appeal of watching talented people do cool things. Or perhaps, as some studies have suggested, choral singing might have positive effects on people’s sense of well-being. Maybe after a year of peak stress and turmoil, rich harmonies and a 4/4 beat provide some kind of balm.
“For me, it’s quite therapeutic because it’s just vocals and a bass drum, and people harmonizing,” Evans says. “It’s quite a lot of people together.”
Whatever the reason, sea shanties keep spreading. Popular vlogger Hank Green recorded a duet explaining what Wellerman is about and exactly what the lyric “when the tonguing is done” means (butchering the whale for meat). Another user named Hunter Evenson is turning pop songs like WAP by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion into shanties.
Evans, for his part, followed up Wellerman with an 1800s tune called Drunken Sailor (an exploration of what one might pull on a drunken sailor, early in the morning, like shaving his belly with a rusty razor), and he’s got more shanties in store, mostly drawing from the requests he’s getting on TikTok. He’s also looking at recording a short EP and putting it on music platform Bandcamp.
Until then, TikTokers will have to ration supplies and keep waiting for the Wellerman.