What do you do with a drunken sailor? Put him on TikTok and make him a sensation. A recent trend on the video-sharing app has many people discovering and loving sea-shanties—and sounding like they’re sailing on a Victorian pirate ship, instead of recording songs from dry land.
Given TikTok’s collaborative nature, the trend appears to have grown out of musicians on the app simply sharing the seafaring songs and others following suit.
One video that’s representative of the wave—and which has amassed 79,000 views—shows Scottish singer NathanEvanss performing the classic and well-known shanty “Drunken Sailor.” London singer Jonny Stewart duetted the clip to provide bass notes.
While “Drunken Sailor” may be a standard on and off the high seas, other creators have shared a few other lesser-known shanties with the masses, and have helped spark a growing movement of people who want to play pirate-karaoke.
Hunter Evenson, a choir teacher, and Sam Pope, singer and guitarist of hard rock band Sons of Melvin, have recently shared a number of folk classics that sound like they’d be sailor favorites, like “Leave Her Johnny” and the Irish-folk song “Rattlin’ Bog.”
In a Zoom call, Pope told Newsweek that he was already a fan of shanties before they caught on with TikTokers, thanks to video games like Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and bands like The Dreadnoughts, who regularly play the old-world tunes. “I’ve always liked them. I think it’s a great, fun style of music. It’s very wholehearted and uplifting,” he said.
Pope mentioned that the popularity and recent releases of Assassins Creed: Valhalla and the History Channel show Vikings may have contributed to people wanting to seek out this sort of music, but he said that the nature of shanties and the collective feeling they’re imbued with are a big part of what makes them so enjoyable.
“I think people enjoy seeing something that’s a bit of fun on TikTok. On social media in general, in particular with the world we’re living in at the moment, I think there’s so much negativity, and people are feeling a little bit sorry for themselves at the moment. So to see something that makes them smile, and particularly, something that allows them to sing along as well—it’s one of those styles that the music doesn’t judge you for your ability to sing,” he said. “If you can sing a little bit or you can sing really well, you can all join in, and the whole style of music is geared around it being a community-based music. It’s people singing together. You can’t do a sea shanty just with one person. You have to have the crew there to back up on the choruses.”
One popular video—which has drawn more than half a million views between TikTok and Twitter—shows many creators expanding on a cover of the shanty “Wellerman,” singing multiple parts and adding instrumentation to turn it into a complete arrangement.
TikTok’s “Duet” feature allows users to join in and offer their voices, which adds to that communal feeling that Pope mentioned. Being able to share music with others and take part in a sort of group project online has had a positive effect for some of those involved.
In one clip, a TikToker theorizes that the pandemic and isolation may be the cause for the resurgence in this salty style of music, since shanties were originally created to “help people get through long stretches of fear and boredom.”
It’s a sentiment that Pope agrees with. “Even if it’s not a particularly happy shanty, it just makes you feel good,” he said. “When you’re singing with other people, you’re experiencing something together, and I think that connection is something that we’ve all been lacking for the last year or so, and I think it’s great that it’s allowing people to connect again, even if its over long distances and over the internet.”
The trend has spawned some memes, with some people poking fun at the sea songs’ popularity. One TikToker joked in a clip about sea shanty raves taking over once COVID ends. Even The Washington Post TikTok account got in on it, with a humorous video about politicians singing a shanty during impeachment hearings.
A Twitter user recently shared a link to a Spotify playlists featuring shanties, but a landlubbers goofed on him, saying that people only like shanties because they didn’t “live through [indie folk band] the decemberists.”
the tik tok sea shanty thing only exists because gen z didn’t have to live through the decemberists
— garrett bridger gilmore (@jgarrettgilmore) January 12, 2021
This all appears to have kicked off because Evenson and Pope were making shanty versions of popular songs. On January 2, Evenson began a series of clips on his account featuring performances of songs like”All Star” by Smash Mouth, “WAP” by Cardi B and “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance, all done in the style of shanties. Pope also joined in, with his takes on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Pope said that familiarity helped draw people in.
“Some of the stuff we’re creating is kind of a hybrid of shanties and pop, but that style of it feeling like it has lots of voices and making it relatively easy in terms of melody and repetition for people to pick it up themselves, I think that really draws people in—and then the fact that it’s songs or lyrics that they recognize, it brings people in that wouldn’t have listened to it otherwise,” Pope said.
Before our Zoom call ended, Pope came back to the idea that this music and TikTok both provide a sense of community that’s important as the coronavirus pandemic continues. “Collaboration is key to all this style of music, and I think it’s the key to keeping us all connected,” he said, “and I think it’s what we all need, and what we’re all longing for and to stay positive.” Arr.
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