© 2021 WYPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
WYPR Arts

Why Sea Shanties Have Taken Over TikTok

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Argh, the latest trend in pandemic distraction may be - shiver me timbers - sea shanties.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) There once was a ship that put to sea, and the name of that ship was the Billy of Tea.

SIMON: Landlubbers on TikTok and other social media are now appreciating the 200-year-old art form.

MARY MALLOY: Sea shanties are a particular kind of song that accompanies work.

SIMON: That's Mary Molloy. For 25 years, she taught a program out of Woods Hole, Mass., called the Sea Education Association Semester. She says sea shanties are influenced by the rhythms of African work songs with lyrics that are Anglo Irish. Mary Malloy is also a folk singer. How could she not be with so fine a name? And yes, she sings sea songs. Here be Mary.

MALLOY: (Singing) Oh, when I was a little boy, or so my mommy told me, away, haul away, we'll haul away Joe.

There's a singer who is the chanty man, the leader, who sings a line, and then everybody together joins on that second one. (Singing) Way, haul away. We'll haul away Joe.

And on certain words you would actually haul on the line.

SIMON: Which brings us now to the social media phenomenon known as ShantyTok. It took off after Nathan Evans posted his covers of sea songs. People started to add to his version of "Wellerman" using the TikTok duet feature.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) Soon may the Wellerman come to bring us sugar and tea and rum...

SIMON: Then other scallywags began posting their own sea shanties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Oh, you hear a lot of stories about sailors and their sport, about how every sailor has a girl in every port.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) What should we do with a drunken sailor early in the morning?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing) Soon may the Wellerman come to bring us sugar and tea and rum...

SIMON: Now, "Wellerman" is by far the most popular ShantyTok, but it's technically not a sea shanty. Blow me down - it be a ballad.

MALLOY: The songs that are now appearing on TikTok, a lot of them are actually songs that were sung on shipboard, but they weren't sung for work. So technically they're not shanties.

SIMON: But TikTokers don't care for technicalities.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Singing) Soon may the Wellerman come...

FRANKLINE UZOWULU: I still can't see what other people are seeing in the video. Like, it's just another car ride.

SIMON: That's Frankline Uzowulu of Houston, Texas, talking about his viral TikTok that shows spread of shanty love from him to his older brother, Promise.

PROMISE UZOWULU: I liked what I listened to, and I really bumped to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Singing) One day when the tonguing is done we'll take our leave and go.

KATHRYN VANARENDONK: It just feels, like, such an uncool, weird thing for everyone to really get into right now.

SIMON: That's Kathryn VanArendonk, a pop culture critic for Vulture and New York magazine, breaking down the why of this latest trend and that video by the Ozowulu brothers.

VANARENDONK: It puts that uncoolness on display and then watches someone come around to it anyhow. By the end, it feels OK for us to bop along to it because he is bopping along to it.

SIMON: Sea shanties can provide a sense of togetherness. Think about it. Songs written to be sung together in a time and place that can feel isolating and tedious.

Mary Malloy thinks there's another reason why we love sea shanties right now.

MALLOY: The sea has traditionally for centuries been thought of as a place to escape, to escape from whatever your reality is and that, I think in isolation, the idea of the sort of boundless sea in a place to be on a ship, it's a great sort of escapism.

SIMON: ShantyTok is also evolving as it grows.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

HUNTER EVENSON: (Singing) Somebody once told me the world is going to roll me. I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed. She was...

SIMON: Hunter Evenson is turning pop songs into sea shanties. That's his version of "All Star" by a Smash Mouth. Someone else, Sam Pope, is doing the same. Ahoy, me hearties, name this tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SAM POPE: (Singing) Boys row. Another one bites the dust. And row, boys, row. Another one bites the dust. And another one gone, and another one gone, and another one bites the dust. Hey, hey. I'm going to get you, too. Another one bites the dust. Hey.

SIMON: This be WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Argh, I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.