Ports, Past and Present


Early 19th century Royal Navy sailors singing while off duty: This is an illustration from the book “Songs, naval and national” by Thomas Dibdin, published in London, England in 1841. ~ Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Date: 1878

There was once a ship that put to sea, the name of the ship was the Billy of Tea…”

So goes ‘Wellerman’, a catchy nineteenth-century sea shanty from New Zealand. It was covered in 2018 by Bristol-based folk band, The Longest Johns. In late December 2021, 26-year-old Scottish singer Nathan Evans performed his own cover of the 2018 version of ‘Wellerman’ on TikTok. According to the Telegraph, Evans hadn’t even heard of sea shanties before a TikTok follower previously requested he cover one. The next day, another user added a bass harmony to Evans’ popular cover. This prompted more users to add their own recordings, creating a pleasingly collaborative set of harmonies. There was even a Kermit version. The clips went viral, and #ShantyTikTok was born.

A Ports, Past and Present thread on #shantytiktok

Why sea shanties, and why now? The Guardian suggested that there are two theories: first, that the collaborative nature of TikTok lends itself to layered singing, and second, that “lockdown has broken us to such an extent that we’re forced to sing sea shanties on the internet for fun.” It’s not hard to see shanties as a soothing force in currently tumultuous times. Their work-a-day lyrics and folksy rhythms call to mind lives lived long before ours, and the ever-present force of the sea. They represent endurance in the face of uncertainty.

Sea shanties have uncertain origins, and tie together seagoing music traditions from Ireland, Britain, the Caribbean and beyond. Broadly understood as the working songs of sailors, sea shanties were shared and adapted via the inherently mobile lives of that group. Cross-coastal collaboration was thus a natural part of the tradition. TikTok users from around the world build on one another’s harmonies; not dissimilarly, the Rosslare Maritime Heritage Group has held annual sea shanty events, bringing together musicians from across the Irish Sea (including, in 2016, Pembrokeshire’s The Vagrant Crew, Cork-based Molgoggers, and the South End Sea Shanty Singers from Essex).

The nineteenth-century saw greater formalisation of sea shanty tradition. Shanties were compiled together in books for posterity, and were seen as a vital part of sailor expression and identity. This period is often called the ‘Golden Age’ of sea shanties. Writer Herman Melville referred to shanties in his epic whaling tale, Moby Dick (1851). Fittingly, the film adaptation of Moby Dick (1956) featured numerous shanties, compiled by legendary musicologist A.L. Lloyd. Part of the filming was carried out in Fishguard, where a shanty tradition has also endured: songs are not infrequently performed at local festivals and pub evenings.

Sea shanties traditionally served two purposes: to motivate physical work, and to entertain sailors. Maria Fitzgerald-Houlihan wrote about Wexford’s coastal ballads for Ports, Past and Present: she wrote that these ballads were informed by real-life experiences as well as the emotional and social characteristics of folklore. The same can be said of sea shanties: they are songs of the people, whether on ships or TikTok.

You can read more nautical and coastal stories in the Ports, Past and Present ‘Nautical Tales’ collection.

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