As a long-time folkie I watched with great amusement as the Good Morning America TV show interviewed Nathan Evans – the twenty-six year old Scottish postman whose Tiktok renditions of sea shanties seem to have sparked off their discovery by a whole new, and hitherto unenlightened, audience. 74 million views and counting.
Of course sea shanties are not a new phenomenon to many of us.
The breakfast-show hosts played a short clip of Nathan’s The Wellerman while telling the audience that it’s called a ‘sea shanty,’ emphasising the two words as though they’d never been spoken in English before, and explaining that it was a ‘serous throwback all the way from the nineteenth century’. Then the other host explained that ‘Sea shanties date back to the 1800s; folk songs that were sung by sailors working on whaling ships.’
Close but no cigar.
The Evening Standard said, ‘Elon Musk is among celebrities embracing the medieval music trend started by a postman.’
Medieval? I think not. (There certainly may have been work chants in Medieval times, but none survive today.)
Sea shanties are rhythmical work songs, commonly sung to set a pace for specific types of labour on board a sailing vessel – not just whaling ships, of course. You get capstan shanties, windlass shanties, and halyard shanties, for instance – differently paced songs for different types of task, hauling or heaving. The shantyman would set the pace and sing the call while the crew doing the work would sing/shout the response. The deck of a ship was no place for a smooth trained voice. The requirements for a shantyman was that he could be heard over a force eight gale, he could keep a steady rhythm suitable for the job, and that he could improvise the call lines (the response always being the same) to make the shanty as long or as short as it needed to be to get the job done. Bonus points to the shantyman for lewdness. Hey, sailoring was a hard life, they had to take their fun where they could find it.
It’s likely that shanties (or chanteys) developed from work chants much earlier than the 1800s, of course. Sometimes they were accompanied by a fiddle, but more often they were sung without any instrumental accompaniment. You can find a great many shanties in what it probably one of the definitive works of the genre: Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961). Stan – known as the last shantyman – was not only a singer with a great repertoire, but also a collector of shanties.
You also get forebitters, sea songs usually sung by sailors while at rest, for entertainment, rather than to mark rhythm for a shipboard task. But that’s a subject for another day.
If you are thinking that this current interest in shanties is the first revival, think again. The folk song revival of the 1950s and 60s which continues to the present, of course, adopted shanties and sea songs enthusiastically. Nathan Evans has now been signed up to Polydor Records, and the harmony version of The Wellerman by Bristol group The Longest Johns has gone viral. However for the last 60 years there has been a long line of shanty and sea song singers from The Shanty Crew, Kimber’s Men, ‘unsung’ heroes such as Johnny Collins (solo and with Jim Mageean) and the Keelers to Fisherman’s Friends, recently brought to public consciousness by the movie of the same name.
If you want to listen to some sea-shanties from those well-known-in-folk-circles performers who are definitely not ‘famous’ try this: https://youtu.be/-CuyLbC2TZo
These are two of my favourite sea-songs practitioners: William Pint and Felicia Dale. Listen here: https://youtu.be/QDYg0-kkAkU – or try this one https://youtu.be/RLRcu8ogYTs Coincidentally William and Felicia are the people who introduced me to Annie Scarborough – see below.
So why have sea shanties gone viral with a new audience?
Times are very strange. I wish I had a shiny penny for every time the news broadcasts use the word ‘unprecedented,’ whether it’s referring to Coronavirus, the US presidency of the orange one (now thankfully terminated), or the storming of the Capitol building by armed insurrectionists on 6th January 2021. These are strange times, indeed, not only strange but terrifying. (At the time of writing the UK is approaching 100,000 C-19 deaths.) I think sea shanties provide a simplicity that we all yearn for as modern life becomes ever more complex. Music has always raised the spirits. As has been proved on Tiktok, shanties are simple enough for anyone to join in with, and singing together, even via Tiktok, Youtube or Zoom, if you can’t currently meet in person, is good for the soul.
Which brings me to the literary connection… in the author’s own words. Please welcome Elizabeth Ann Scarborough to the blog.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Songkiller Saga
The Phantom Banjo / Picking the Ballad’s Bones / Strum Again
The Songkiller Saga is an extended attempted murder ballad comprised of three books, Phantom Banjo, in which the good guys discover and begin to thwart a plot by the Evil Forces aka Devils, to obliterate folk music, Picking the Ballads’ Bones in which the same good guys travel to the places where various important songs began, taking them to their roots, and Strum Again? in which the music, newly remembered and performed again, does battle with the Devils again to keep itself as relevant and useful as it always has been.
If I were writing it today I would include the phenomena of how a plague forced modern people indoors and onto the internet where they rediscovered Sea Shanties. The nautical work songs were all but lost except for specialty festivals in areas with a seagoing history, but were no longer necessary as they were in the days when they contained the beat, the pace, and within their lyrics the instructions for work aboard the sailing ships that once plowed the seas hauling cargo and killing whales. The latter activity, while currently considered politically incorrect, nonetheless had a lot of the best songs. Where once the world’s economy was interwoven with the sea songs, up until recently people asked “what’s a shanty?” Nowadays the answer seems to be “an internet sensation performed in chorus with whoever wants to join in, connecting house-bound landlubbers and relieving some of their tension, anxiety, and isolation.”
I wrote the series when restrictions and regulations stopped the interaction of (particularly) Canadian and US performers and their products across the border, also interfering with the movement of the songs and performers of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Not only was the flow of traditional songs dammed, but new songs no longer reached the ears of all possible audiences. Something had to be done!
Who better to tackle the task than the musicians and lovers of the music I called friends? I didn’t use real names or identities for the most part because basically, in the context of the book, they didn’t exist. None of my friends have done the things I describe in the books (except for the singing, of course) and if any of the Devils resemble real people or organizations they might object to the use of their true identities. A few characters are composites of characteristics of people I know. People seem to have fun guessing who is who. Those I know and have used as inspiration are aware of it and approve of it. For using any portion of any of their songs I obtained written permission. Although the books fared commercially about as well as most of the songs, I have received fan mail and good comments about them from people I’ve admired for a long time. The “Take it to its Roots” song I wrote as the theme song for the books was recently recorded by Tania Opland, who may or may not have inspired one of the characters. In recent years I’ve written two more novels in my original SONGS FROM THE SEASHELL ARCHIVES series, carrying the timeline forward to include steam punk memes. The first book is THE DRAGON, THE WITCH, AND THE RAILROAD and the most recent is REDUNDANT DRAGONS. I have also written several books and stories about a cat detective named Spam who lives in the same town I do and solves “purranormal” mysteries with the help of other critters. Currently I am working on a new one in the Godmother series about animals.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is the author of 30 solo fantasy and science fiction novels, including the 1989 Nebula award winning Healer’s War. Additionally she’s written 16 novels with Anne McCaffrey, most recently the Tales of the Barque Cat series, Catalyst and Catacombs (from Del Rey). Her latest solo novel is Redundant Dragons, a steampunk spinoff of her Songs from the Seashell Archives series. She has had short stories published in numerous anthologies and 3 collections. She loves folk music, cats, Mexican and Native American folk art and singing in groups big enough to drown her out.