Why TikTok is singing sea shanties to its heart’s content

14 January 2021, 17:14 | Updated: 22 January 2021, 16:20

All aboard... TikTok has discovered the sea shanty
All aboard... TikTok has discovered the sea shanty. Picture: TikTok/Nathan Evans

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Way, hay and up she rises – we dive into TikTok’s sudden and deep affection for sea shanties.

While we’re all exhaustibly twiddling our thumbs in lockdown, TikTok users have been quietly falling in love with a genre of medieval folk song.

And now, thanks to some very pleasing musical collaborations on the platform, the humble sea shanty has been making Internet waves.

It even has its own hashtag – #ShantyTok – and according to Google Trends, online searches for nautical tunes are at an all-time high. Even Elon Musk got on board – pun 100 percent intended – with the hype on Twitter.

So, what are sea shanties and why can no one seem to stop singing them?

Read more: Classical music TikToks to distract you from practising >

What is a sea shanty, you ask?

A sea shanty – the best known of which is probably ‘Drunken Sailor – is a collective, thigh-slapper of a song which lends itself to mass singing.

They’re believed to be around 600 years old, and the name itself is thought to derive from the French verb ‘chanter’, meaning ‘to sing’.

Sea shanties were once commonly performed by fisherman, whalers and merchant sailors to accompany their sail-hoisting and deck-scrubbing.

They would typically have been sung a cappella – without instrumental accompaniment – across a crowded deck.

Read more: TikTok turns ‘Ratatouille’ into a brilliant, full-blown Broadway musical >

How did #ShantyTok start?

#ShantyTok all began thanks to the lilting vocals of unsuspecting 26-year-old Scottish postman Nathan Evans, who started the trend from his bedroom after one of his followers requested a cover of ‘Leave Her Johnny’ (watch above).

Banging his fist on the table, Nathan belted out the Scottish folk song, and the world listened.

It also, rather wonderfully, joined in…

Because TikTok lends itself to mass singing – and because musicians are just awesome – people have been harmonising with Nathan’s videos, from folk violinists to deep baritones and descant-loving sopranos.

What’s so great about sea shanties?

Sea shanties were designed to be chantable melodies with basic lyrics that the sailors could easily pick up and remember.

They were often heard in a call-and-response format, with one sailor booming out a line or two for the others to repeat across the other side of the billowing sails.

And now, we can hear them bellowed from one side of the world to the other, through the magic of TikTok.

“For me, it’s quite therapeutic because it’s just vocals and a bass drum, and people harmonising,” Evans told CNet.

“It’s quite a lot of people together.”

As the world navigates a global pandemic, political turmoil and endless bouts of conspiracy theories, perhaps we’re all yearning for simpler times, spent knocking back the rum scrubbing the deck, hoisting the sails and singing with our chums...