It all started last summer lockdown. Nathan Evans, 26, came home from the morning round with his letters and parcels and uploaded a shanty on his TikTok page. TikTok, the interactive and messing app, mainly used by young people. “Leave her, Johnny, leave her,” an old sailor’s song from Ireland. He had a good dozen followers.
In terms of content, it is about catching and cutting up whales.
Until recently, sedate men with plauze, fishermen’s shirts and Elbe sailors would have succeeded with this song at the harbor festival in Warnemünde. Or the shanty choir De Tampentrekker, who usually belts out short appearances in front of the Zum Schellfischposten pub in Hamburg-Altona on the NDR show “Inas Nacht” (“What Shall We Do With
The Drunken Sailor”).
Hauruck to singing on deck
The hashtag seashanty has almost 80 million hits, and a separate genre called Shantytok has even established itself on the platform.
The re are now hundreds of variations of Evans’ “Wellerman”.
How did it come to that? Shanties used to be really important, out at sea. At a time without machines and hydraulics, work on the deck of the tall ship meant hard work. Especially when anchors were raised or sails were set and the crew had to pull together. It was more harmonious with singing and was certainly easier.
Foto: Horace Abrahams / Getty Images
All in one boat, a “Wellerman” long
When ships with steam engines replaced tall ships because they were faster and more reliable, shanty singing also fell silent. It was simply no longer needed in a technical world. If anything, the sailors sang in the docks by the harbor.
But even those times are long gone: Today, seafarers in the ranks of the crew are poorly paid industrial workers who are not looking for quick schnapps and quick love in the port, but for free WiFi.
The fact that the shanty genre is experiencing an incredible renaissance in the Corona era is probably also due to the element of the archaic. A crew, far out at sea, in the face of an approaching storm – that’s what it feels like for many people in lockdown.
No instruments are required for the shanty. Skewed notes are even welcome. It’s all so down-to-earth, so authentic and honest and fits into a time when many feel lonely. Everyone is sitting in the same boat, everyone is pulling a rope. At least for the duration of a “Wellerman”.
From whaler to streaming
The brothers emigrated to Sydney from Folkestone in the south of England in 1823 and within a few years had built up a small empire from Australia and New Zealand, mainly through whaling. On one of the Weller ships, the “Lucy Ann”, the later writer Hermann Melville, author of “Moby Dick”, is said to have toiled as a sailor: a Weller employee, a “Wellerman”. This is also how the supply ships were called.
The catchy tune is about the whaling ship “Billy o ‘Tea”, which wants to take a right whale in tow.
But then, conversely, the boats are pulled through the sea for many days by the harpooned and submerged whale – and the crew hopes for the supply ship »Wellerman«, which brings sugar, tea and rum, until the »tonguing« begins, the dismantling of the whale carcass:
»Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum,
One day, when the tonguin’ is done
We’ll take our leave and go«
More than 150 years later, the shanty went viral and is among the five most played viral songs worldwide on the Spotify streaming service. Which also has to do with a shanty band from Bristol, England.
The Longest Johns, four young guys, have been singing shanties at festivals in Great Britain for years, largely unnoticed. At the end of last year they made the song available on the Twitch video portal as free background music for videos. Result: Your “Wellerman” version is one of the 200 most streamed songs in the USA.
Feeling of a wide sea, a full glass and burping in between
Shanties have hit the charts before. As part of a modern fairy tale that eventually even got to the cinemas. Ten fishermen from the village of Port Isaac, Cornwall, who call themselves Fisherman’s Friends and sing old sea shanties, had caught the eye of a BBC radio presenter. Fascinated by the »Rock’n’Roll of 1752« – as it is later called in the film – he showed his manager the band’s self-produced CD after his vacation.
One of the most popular songs is “Nelson’s Blood”. It is about how the naval hero Horatio Nelson died in a battle against the French, whereupon his body was transported in a rum barrel to Nelson’s home port of Plymouth. What didn’t stop the crew from drinking from it: “Nelson’s Blood”.
The feel-good comedy “Fisherman’s Friends” was, of course, a big hit.
This may be the reason for the triumph of the shanties: this feel-good momentum. Singing along with the courage to play a weird tone, the feeling of a full pub and a full glass, of the sea and belching. Part of the irony of this success is that sea shanties are a global trend, while the misery of seafarers is growing into an ever worse problem: More than 400,000 crew members are stuck in ports or on board due to the corona crisis worldwide. When they will be able to return home is uncertain for most.
Will the stranded sing a “Wellerman”? Rather not.
The Courageous Tales of the Sea” was recently published.