Summer read: There was a surge in interest in sea shanties on social media last summer. We asked a veteran of the style why.
First published January 14, 2021
In case you missed it, soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.
If that sentence is even remotely comprehensible to you, you’re either a colonial era whaler, or you’ve stumbled across a recent social media craze for sea shanties, an old genre of folk music that describes both the adventures and more mundane facts of life for sailors. Many of the songs date back to the 1700s, and have been passed down through the generations since.
The recent surge in popularity comes largely from TikTok, a video sharing social media platform with a strong musical bent. Trends get set on the platform – notably for New Zealand audiences it was where artist Benee first came to international prominence.
But this isn’t the first time modern interest in sea shanties has spiked. In fact, the music has enjoyed an underground popularity for years.
One such group to have been doing it for a while is the Wellington Sea Shanty Society. They released a critically acclaimed album in 2013, Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties Vol.1, and have been putting out records and performing live ever since.
We asked guitarist and vocalist Lake Davineer what he made of the social media craze, and why the music had endured for so long.
The Spinoff: How does someone like yourself even get into sea shanties in the first place?
Davineer: When I went to France, I was couch surfing with someone, and they had a friend who was in a sea shanty choir – chant marin. And I went and hung out with them, and that was just like singing sea shanties in bars. Then they turned it more into a band, and I brought that band back to New Zealand. I guess the thing I liked about the sea shanties straight away was getting everyone singing together – simple songs in a pub – which doesn’t really happen that much.
So there’s generally audience participation with a sea shanty gig?
There was originally in France, and that was what I tried to bring back to New Zealand. And now that’s what we do here. And I think that’s kind of what’s happening with TikTok – people like songs they can sing along to.
Here we hand out song sheets, and it’s really popular at the moment, especially in Wellington. Now people are just singing without the song sheets. We had a gig in December, and there was a whole pub, everyone singing along – just something people don’t really get that often.
Is it about the singing for people? Is it dance music as well? What’s the kind of vibe people go into these gigs with?
There’s a lot of foot-stomping, or people dancing a jig. It gets really quite rowdy these days.
Which is probably how a lot of these songs were sung in the 1700s?
Well, probably in more trying conditions than, you know, drinking craft beer.
One of the songs that has gone really big on TikTok – Soon May The Wellerman Come. You did a version of it on your first album. Can you explain to me who the Wellerman is?
When I came back, and was thinking sea shanties would be a cool genre to explore, I researched all the New Zealand shanties, mainly through the folksong.org.nz website. I think one of the first ones I found was the Wellerman. There was a whaling company off the shores of Dunedin, and there’s still some remnants you can check out, but the Wellerman was the company that supplied them with sugar and rum and tea, so they could keep whaling. That’s what I understand it as, anyway.
Apart from the Drunken Sailor, that’s pretty much our big hit when we play live, it gets everyone going, so there’s obviously something in it. Except the versions on TikTok are different – we do more of a party version. The Longest Johns do more of a traditional version, which is five guys standing in a row without any instrumentation. We’ve kind of gone down the route of having instruments, and making it more like dance music.
The version you mentioned there – the Longest Johns – are they kind of the blue whales of the sea shanty world?
Well they’re new, we did our version in 2013, and they did their version in maybe 2019. But their version has about 6 million views on YouTube, and ours is more like 300,000.
That’s still quite a few…
Yeah, we got something like 30,000 plays on Spotify just yesterday. It was going up – we had a few hundred followers, and now we’re getting over a hundred new followers a day.
That’s absolutely wild.
Yeah, but the Longest Johns, they’re next level. I guess it’s partly in their name, but for us it’s more of a side project. [The Longest Johns are from the UK.]
A lot of New Zealand bands would be pretty happy with the sort of numbers you were getting even before this surge. Has there been a bit of an underground culture around this for a while?
This is the biggest it has been, but I think about a year ago there was another big blip. I’m not quite sure why, it seemed to be related to certain video games, I’m not sure. And Reddit, and various pages – I’m not sure what happens, I just see it spiking up.
The songs on Volume One seem to be traditional standards, or about people who lived hundreds of years ago. Is it possible to write new shanties, or with more modern themes? Or would that cut against the point of the music?
A joint English-French album we did [Ahoy] had a song by [bandmate] Vorn which is quite a good one, called Eye on the Weather. That’s been quite popular as well. But it’s sort of in a traditional style, with quite timeless lyrics.
Then we also did on our last album before that – Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties Volume Two – that was about half originals. We used the shanty sort of formula, and applied it to New Zealand history, looking at historical figures like Sam Parnell, who helped secure the 40-hour working week. Or people who had links to the sea, which was pretty much everyone in the early years of New Zealand history, or first contact between Pākehā and Māori people and putting it into songs. That’s what makes it interesting for us, being able to add to the canon. Our friends in France, their originals are more set in the modern day world, but the shanty style.
There seems to be an underlying theme with shanties that, you know, life is hard, luck determines your fate, things can go wrong at any moment but you have to keep singing. Is that something which is there, and perhaps somewhat relatable to the modern world?
I guess we say we sing sea songs more than shanties. If you want to be really pedantic about it, shanties have a particular form – like What Should We Do With A Drunken Sailor – that are really formulaic, and to be sung in a certain time to pull ropes while you’re working. The Wellerman song kind of fits in with that.
What I find cool about some of the French songs, they’re more “up middle finger to the captain”. My take on them is that they’re a bit more subversive – we’re working down here, let’s push the captain overboard. There’s an English one like that as well – Come All You Tonguers – which has that sort of same thing. Those are my favourite ones, about organising as workers to oust the ship owners.
By the way, have you ever actually lived at sea? Does that matter to it either way?
No, I’ve never lived at sea, and have no real aspirations to. We view the whole thing a bit metaphorically – one of my friends summed it up as liking the adventure element of sea shanties, and living a life of adventure. And also as I said before, organising as workers and saying F you to the captain. In terms of actually living on the sea, we’re a bit like the Beach Boys in that they don’t really surf.
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