A History of Sea Shanties

“Then we’ll blow the man up and we’ll blow the man down. Go way, way, blow the man down. We’ll blow him right over to Liverpool town.”

Unless you started living under a rock when COVID-19 reared its ugly head, you’ll no doubt have witnessed the sudden and perhaps inexplicable boom in the popularity of sea shanties on social media.

While the likes of TikTok helped facilitate the rise of so-called ‘sea shanties’ (actually sea songs, but more on that later), not many people are aware of just where and when such nautical tunes came from.

So we wanted to take you on a little history of sea shanties…

Although historians have traced examples of sea shanties back to the 16th century, these types of songs really became popular during the 19th century on-board large sailing ships.

You may think that most of these songs were of a naval origin, but they were predominantly heard being sung on merchant ships, which is why there are so many songs about whaling, for example.

In The Background of Sea Shanties, author Harold Whates explains that “the purpose of a hauling shanty was rhythm to the task of extracting just that last ounce from men habitually weary, overworked and underfed.” This explains why sea shanties became so popular with ship-based workers – they helped make those hard group tasks easier, or at least a little more bearable.

There were many different types of sea shanties, each traditionally linked to the job being undertaken. ‘Short drag’ shanties, such as Haul on the Bowling or the famous Drunken Sailor, were designed for short, hard bouts of pulling rope. In contrast, long haul, or ‘halyard’, shanties like the well-known Blow the Man Down included multiple sprawling verses that were sung for sustained periods of pulling. With these longer songs of the sea, the crew of the ship could rest while the shantyman showed off his lyrical prowess.

So you now know a bit about the history of sea shanties, but just why are they suddenly so popular again?

Although shanty bands have been popular for years in bars and pubs across the UK, especially those nautical-themed establishments like The Ship Inn or Smuggler’s Inn, the genre of music really took off in the height of the pandemic thanks to one Scottish singer and the power of social media.

In December 2020, Nathan Evans uploaded a video of himself performing Wellerman to TikTok, which quickly gained momentum and inspired other users of the app to add their own duets, harmonies and reactions. Thus, #ShantyTok was born.

Although Wellerman is actually an example of a sea ballad, the cover version by Nathan led to a social media craze around songs erroneously considered to be sea shanties.

If you’re into your video games, you may also remember the player character in the Golden Age of Piracy-set Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag collecting a number of sea shanties that your crew would then sing while on a voyage.

It doesn’t matter whether this new breed of folk music is classed as sea shanties, sea songs or anything in between, they are definitely being added to our playlist and will be enjoyed in our own home bar!

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