The latest craze to take over TikTok and Twitter is sea shanties, the work songs sung by crews on merchant ships during the great days of sail to help them keep rhythm for tasks like hoisting sales. The craze has led British Library Publishing in London is to bring forward the publication of Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas, an illustrated book on the musical, lyrical and social history of melodic sea songs from the days of the clippers racing across the oceans. Written by Gerry Smyth, a singer, shanty band leader and English language professor at Liverpool John Moores University, the book features more than 40 shanties and 10 ballads.
The move to bring forward publication is in response to a flurry of posts and interest on the social media platforms, where singers and musicians have interpreted and joined in on renditions of classics shanties and working songs under the #seashantytok hashtag.
The craze seems to have been started by a 26-year-old Scottish postman, Nathan Evans, whose rendition of a 19th century New Zealand maritime folk song ‘Wellerman’ has surpassed 1m views on TikTok.
Just why sea shanties have caused such interest is much harder to say. One theory is that during the pandemic, the singing of simple songs with repeating choruses is reassuring. Each repeating chorus is like a chant, which may explain the origin of the word ‘shanty’.
The publisher says: ‘From the earliest of voyages seafarers have sung, be they homeward bound or rolling in a merciless sea to an unknown horizon. The shouts and cries of these sailors’ shanties provided a musical rhythm to their work and such ‘concerted’ efforts improved efficiency as anchors were raised, sails hoisted, and bilge water pumped. Boredom was allayed, concentration increased, and the stamina-sapping agonies were borne on a melody.’
In the book each song is presented with lyrics, musical notation and a history of the song and its inspirations. It is illustrated with specially commissioned artwork as well as imagery from the holdings of the British Library. The book is available now.