Sea shanties show TikTok is the global proving grounds for culture

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If you’ve visited social media lately—and surely you haven’t because we’re all keeping good on our New Year’s resolutions—you’ve probably encountered a sea shanty.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, a quick recap. The sea shanty arose midway through the last millennium as a breed of work-song for sailors to while away the time, forge communal bonds, and generally keep from going insane. Then a couple months ago, a 26-year-old Scottish postman named Nathan Evans sang a rendition on TikTok that made the world become re-obsessed.

The sea shanty form is particularly suited to TikTok. The youth-craze app lets people create “duets,” a feature that adjoins a video post to one already playing. In Sept., TikTok revamped the feature, leading to a renaissance of collaborative creativity. Soon after, Evans posted his performance of “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” which promptly went viral and set off a flood of duets, remixes, and copies.

For anyone wondering, “the Wellerman” refers to an employee of The Weller Brothers, an Aussie merchant outfit that dominated New Zealand ports in the 1830s. The singers of the shanty are pining for a resupply of staples for their voyage; namely, sugar, tea, and rum. You can consider the tune to be, in spirit, a maritime predecessor to “The Wells Fargo Wagon” in the 1957 musical The Music Man. (Side note: Imagine being that excited to see someone from Wells Fargo today?)

The sea shanty’s resurgence may seem random, but it makes sense. In addition to being perfectly suited for TikTok’s duet technology, the genre fits the moment. During the lockdowns and quarantines of the pandemic, people are starved for human connection. What better way to find solidarity than to lend one’s voice to the hauntingly beautiful harmony of nautical folk a cappella?

(There’s something to be said, too, for the shared human experience of engaging in social media drudgery in the hopes of landing a big, viral score, echoing the grim lottery of 19th century whaling ventures.)

People who learn to exploit the idiosyncrasies of mass communications and tap the zeitgeist gain special powers. (See, formerly: @realDonaldTrump.) Right now, it just so happens that mobile video-sharing software from ByteDance, a Chinese corporation, is one of the most significant global proving grounds for that miracle of a feedback loop we call culture.

Lest you think the sea shanty’s newfound popularity is a fluke, I might point you to the zany genius of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, one of the all-time musical greats. In the ‘60s, Wilson perfected the “wall of sound” technique famously associated with the late hitmaker and convicted murderer Phil Spector, who died in jail this weekend. That groundbreaking style found avid fans through its characteristically fulsome reverberation, a quality that played well on radios and jukeboxes, the then-dominant audio-broadcasting technology.

After you’ve finished with the Wellerman, give “Sloop John B,” The Beach Boys’ own sea shanty adaptation, a listen. True genius is timeless.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

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