Entertainment

Why Sea Shanties Are Suddenly Taking Over the Internet

Soon may the Wellerman come...

Was there even a song of the summer last year? It was hard to tell without the ever presence of parties and the tinny sounds over store radios. Maybe it was "WAP." Maybe it wasn't. One thing that's for certain, though, the "The Wellerman," otherwise known as "Soon May the Wellerman Come," is the song of the winter. What is "The Wellerman"? It's a sea shanty, of course. 

Sea shanties are the latest musical craze to emerge from the wells of TikTok, not unlike Doja Cat's "Say So" or the Ratatouille Musical, which ended up raising nearly $2 million for The Actors Fund. All the kids these days are jamming out to 19th century whaling tunes (or songs that at least sound like 19th century whaling tunes). But why?

How did the sea shanty craze happen? 

Let's start at the beginning, with a 26-year-old Scottish postal worker and musician named Nathan Evans, who, according to the BBC, first posted a sea shanty Tok back in July, but really hit it big with "The Wellerman," which dropped in December. After his first video passed 1 million views, he realized that there was a craving for more.

"People were looking forward to more and they were commenting underneath every video after that saying, can you sing this one, can you sing that one," he told the BBC. Then TikTok did what TikTok does and took the concept and ran with it. The fine creative minds on the platform added harmonies and instrumentals. They turned it into an EDM track. Kermit the frog joined in. One user turned pop songs, like Smash Mouth's "All Star," into sea shanties. Now, sea shanties are a full-on phenomenon. Just wait, the next thing you know there will be a Billy Ray Cyrus sea shanty remix.

What's "The Wellerman"? 

The jaunty tune that kicked this all off originated in New Zealand in the 19th century. The "Wellerman" refers to an employee of the shipping and whaling company run by the Weller brothers out of Sydney Harbor. The song tells tale of the seamen waiting for the "Wellerman" to come bring them supplies from shore as their captain sets out in pursuit of a whale. The New York Times spoke to a music educator who noted that it's technically not a "sea shanty" because it was designed to tell a story, not help sailors keep time. 

Why is this happening? 

The most obvious answer is that, frankly, "The Wellerman" and other sea shanties are extremely catchy and therefore easy to repeat and develop on the internet. But there's also the genuine possibility that these songs might be perfectly tailored to our current moment. Kathryn VanArendonk, who wrote a definitive sea shanty story over at Vulture, speculated that sea shanties, which are meant to be sung in groups, offer a unity that the world is desperately lacking right now.

"Right now, it’s not safe to gather in groups," she wrote. "Every news story is about division, deadlock, anger, and the massive gulf between the left and the right. We’re all stuck staring at tiny screens in our own tiny individual boxes, desperately wanting to sing loudly into a stranger’s face while knowing that singing loudly into a stranger’s face is incredibly dangerous right now." I have another theory, also related to isolation: My hands are so cracked from constant washing now that they look like I've been toiling away on a ship. Maybe our minds are just adapting to the way our hands look. I don't know. 

Or perhaps this is just the cyclical nature of pop culture. Every generation has its moment of folk obsession. The boomers had the likes of Joan Baez singing "The Death of Queen Jane," based on a 18th century poem about Jane Seymour. Millennials had the entire concept of The Decemberists. Now, Gen Z has sea shanties.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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