Sea Shanties and Communal Singing

Can we raise a glass to that?

January 17, 2021 by

Last week our family ship was navigating somewhat heavy seas; we had set our course, but were taking on a little water. So my radio was not tuned to chatter from nearby boats, till a friend pinged in with a message. “Sea Shanties!” she said. “Have you noticed? They’re blowing up on TikTok.”

Vessel stabilized; at next ship’s bell, captain ordered crew to the hammocks and navigator retired with grog to catch up on surrounding high seas action. Indeed, TikTok, Twitter, and the world at large were singing shanties, and the song at the heart of the hurricane was “The Wellerman,” a New Zealand whaling tune that had lulled me to sleep as a child. (If we’re being truthful here, it lulled me awake; I spent hours dreaming of sailing ships and piratical adventures, and my walls were papered with clippers and three-masted schooners when my friends were pinning up horses and dolphins. Also, I’m guilty of thundering through all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series back to back, then picking up Master and Commander again. I’m sorry. Or not.)

VEmbedVolga Song, Wassily Kandinsky, 1906

If, like me, you were a few minutes late to the trend, here’s the outline. Scottish postman Nathan Evans has been posting great TikTok covers to songs from “Heart and Soul” to “Wagon Wheel” and “Tennessee Whiskey,” (which totally works in a Scottish whiskey voice), but right after Christmas he posted “Wellerman” a Capella, pounding on the back of his guitar, and shot straight to stardom. TikTok’s duet feature invites endless combinations, and the earworm of a tune ensured thousands of spin-offs, from impossibly deep bass chants (with all the sailors aboard being versions of Luke Taylor) to full choirs with orchestral backing to electroshanty/bump-house remixes. It’s not only this song; musician Sam Pope, just south of London, is having fun inviting duets as well as joining other sing-alongs. A genre almost as extinct as the right whale is not just resurfacing. It’s breaching way out of the water. And everyone sounds just as shocked as they do when a whale does that, right next to your boat, with no warning.

Pundits from New Yorker  to Wired have opined over the cultural moment for shanties, what with pandemics and polemics and all. Kathryn VanArendonk, writing for Vulture, perhaps best captures the motive for this bellowing over the billows: 

I’m here to tell you that sea shanties make so much sense for this moment, right now. They’re songs with simple, blunt rhythms, meant to be easy to learn and easy to sing along with while doing the hard physical work of sailing a large fishing vessel… They are unifying, survivalist songs, designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat.
Right now, it’s not safe to gather in groups. Every news story is about division, deadlock, anger, and the massive gulf between the left and the right. We’re all stuck staring at tiny screens in our own tiny individual boxes, desperately wanting to sing loudly into a stranger’s face while knowing that singing loudly into a stranger’s face is incredibly dangerous right now.

Agreed, shanties are “unifying, survivalist.” Agreed, we can’t sing along with each other right now. But did we sing together before? Will we sing together after? And I do wonder – what would nineteenth century whalers think of us all huddled in our dens, singing “Heave Away,” into white wires? Leave alone hauling on the same rope, we’re not even recording on the same continents, and probably haven’t had to haul together on anything with anyone in a while. Over a year ago, Peter Blair wrote about shanties and work songs for Plough Quarterly magazine in rather prescient terms: 

Listening to music today through AirPods is a passive, individual, consumptive experience; the work song traditions were communal, active, and productive… Whatever metaphors you wish to find in it, there is value in the music itself. It is good for human beings to sing together. It builds camaraderie and throws the singers into exercising human creativity. It’s productive and active, rather than merely passive and consumptive.

Shanties, romanticism aside, were composed in order to accomplish hard, repetitive, unglamorous work, together, in harmony of movement. If you were out of synch, it took a lot longer to get the work done.

Work songs are just one form of communal singing, and communal singing is so different from performative singing that I’m not sure they should both be considered the same art form. The one is antic: a party of one or several, facing an audience, unknown and unknowable beyond the measurements of like and share, seeking fame because – well, what else is there to seek? The other is a circle, balanced, equalizing, full but never finished, sending sound out in an invitation to outliers to come lend their voices for the joy and comfort of it.

The reason I know this is because I’m part of a community that has consciously prioritized group song for all of its hundred years of existence. It’s as if music is its own language, a first language, drawn on to announce the seasons, rejoice in whatever needs celebrating (a lot needs celebrating), underscore faith, bear grief together. This undercurrent of music goes beyond the subject matter of the songs themselves. As writer and poet Jane Tyson Clement wrote in the introduction to a Bruderhof children’s song book: 

From our very beginnings, the life of our children has been an inseparable part of our community life. Where true children are, there is also music. This must be free, genuine, many-sided, and pure. Even though the songs may come to us in varied ways and touch on varied, seemingly incongruous subjects, ultimately they spring from the same source; love of God and his creatures. … A history of our song collections would be a history of our life together, for it truly grows as our community life develops, moves from one country and continent to another, absorbs new members from all walks of life, and makes living contact with individuals and movements.

Growing up on this veritable river of music was not something I was aware of as an appreciable thing until our family spent a few years elsewhere. Sure, we were surrounded by as much performative music as we chose to spool up. Sure we sang a lot together, because we like to. A band of four is good. But I was totally unprepared for my response to the mundanity of daily Bruderhof singing upon our family’s return a few years later. All those bookless, audience-less, effortless, joyous four-part harmonies poured over me; it felt less like riding a river and more like standing under a waterfall. This is prayer, I realized. This is laughter. This is one way to keep us all going. (Fine, don’t believe me; go stand under the waterfall yourself – here’s the Bruderhof Song of the Month Page, going back a few years. Also a recent YouTube Christmas Spectacular.)

The way it’s happening right now of course, is laughable. We’re “singing together” over the phone, passing verses back and forth between families and houses much like sea shanty leads. The choruses crackle; we can’t do our great big Christmas choral works, 200-strong. Some of us have turned to watching (gasp) sea shanties on TikTok. So the question begs itself; will post-COVID Bruderhof come together ready to roar into community singing again – will we know what we’ve been missing, or will it have drifted on beyond us?

And what about everybody else who posted or added to a song online? Is that it – just a dopamine hit – a few minutes of fame? The guys who started #shantytok are just regular folks – a mailman in Scotland, a journalism student in Virginia. They have fun making music as a way to stay sane. They were as startled as anyone when the whale breached, and are dealing with it as best they can. Now thousands of comments and likes rain down on them every day – fawning praise, pitches for better microphones, suggestions to go on shows, on Fortune, on Glory.

I think it would be very cool if they would get the chance to meet in person one day and raise a glass, hoist a sail, and sing a song together. Actually it wouldn’t matter whom they grabbed to raise a glass and sing a song with, as long as it wasn’t in a studio or basement, but face to face, singing just for the joy of it, as it’s clear they like to do.

Perhaps a fitting coda here: one of these musicians, Luke Taylor, (he of the ridiculously deep chest rumble) saw one comment among the thousands flowing through his TikTok feed. It read: “lost my husband of 28 yrs and my friend a month apart any way you could sing amazing grace for me”. Having just got back to college, he got his roommate Josh, a music major, to join him early on Sunday morning – presumably before the dorm was up – picked a deserted stairwell, and this is the result.

That song too, is written by a sailor, one whose story is his song. But Luke and Josh’s gesture, the time taken to fulfill the request of one hurting soul, and by extension, all who are alone and need hope as this year begins, is surely the reason we have all been given voices.

VEmbed2A Cutter and other Ships in a Strong Breeze, Richard Parkes Bonington, 1827


About the author

Maureen Swinger

Maureen Swinger

Maureen Swinger is an editor at Plough Publishing House and lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York, with her...

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