Get in Losers, We’re Singing Sea Shanties – The Cut

Score one for whale.
Photo: De Agostini via Getty Images

Burning Q: What do you do with a drunken sailor early in the morning?

For answers, we turn to TikTok, where a question that has bedeviled men, primarily seamen, for centuries has recently been taken up by a new generation. Yes, that is correct, Gen Z’s favorite app has just discovered sea shanties, embracing them with the hearty gusto of a giant squid capsizing a rowboat.

Wait, what? you may reasonably be asking. Why sea shanties, and why now? I do not have any concrete ideas about this; all I can tell you is that it’s happening. Apparently we’re doing sea shanties now. It makes as much and as little sense as anything else.

Sea shanties are work songs historically sung aboard tall ships, merchant ships, whaling ships — old-timey vessels whose operation hinges on the simultaneous motions of many sailor bods. Per Historic-UK.com, sea shanties have been used since “at least the mid-1400s” to ensure everybody “pushed or pulled, at precisely the same time”: The lead singer, or shantyman, set the rhythm while the rest of the crew carried the chorus. Per the Encyclopedia Britannica, “it was said that ‘a good shantyman was worth four extra hands on the rope,’ ” due to a keen ability to pace a task.

Shanties typically comprise simple, repetitive, easy-to-remember verses with nautical themes. It is possible that “shanty” came either from the English word “chant,” or from the French “chanter,” meaning “to sing.” The end result is basically the midpoint between those two verbs. In any case, Britannica says shanties declined in popularity with the rise of the steamship. Until now, that is.

Sailors, originally, but their revival is attributable to TikTok, where for the past few weeks, users have been joining one another in remote, harmonized rounds. According to Polygon, Scottish singer Nathan Evans kicked off the trend on December 23 with a rousing version of a folk song called “The Scotsman.”

Since then, “Wellerman,” a shanty apparently inspired by the Weller Brothers’ ships that sailed between Australia and New Zealand in the 1800s, has become particularly popular, for whatever reason. Per Polygon, a Wellerman would’ve been a supply ship that restocked a whaling ship such as the one immortalized in song.

Probably the most popular shanty content to have landed online since all of this began, though, is this sequence from TikTok user strong_promises, who recorded what happened when he recently relinquished control of the aux cord during a car ride. His emotional trajectory — skepticism that looks almost like annoyance, confused but gentle amusement, acquiescence, absolute enthusiasm — accurately mirrors what many shanty newbs are feeling in this moment.

Year of the sea shanty it is!

Again, it’s not super clear why this is happening. As Vulture’s resident shanty expert, Kathryn VanArendonk, points out, sea shanties are “resiliently uncool. They’re songs about whaling and strong winds, and they sound the way a bowl of New England clam chowder looks: imprecise, sort of lumpy, and, not to put too fine a point on it, very white.” Also, when you are thinking about the early British shipping industry (by all accounts an active contributor to the sea-shanty canon), it is hard not to think about the colonialist history that brought all that “sugar and tea and rum” to Europe. As VanArendonk notes, Black cultures appear to have played a crucial role in shaping shantying, even though the genre has since been thoroughly whitewashed.

In any case, shanties are easy to sing, VanArendonk points out, “unifying, survivalist songs designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat.” And perhaps there is a metaphor for our current cultural moment in there! Or possibly the random nature of the shanty as a hot new trend is universally funny enough to splash it all around the internet. TikTokers love their unhinged trends! Really, who could say for sure how we got here.

“Shave his belly with a rusty razor,” per the song.

Aye, aye, captain.