TikTok’s Sea Shanties ‘Wellerman’ Musical Trend Explained

When I woke up last Friday morning, I realized I had multiple messages. All were links to a TikTok video of several guys singing a song, a 19th century seafaring song called “Wellerman,” using TikTok’s duet feature.

It was not the first shipyard that I saw on TikTok. It wasn’t even the first performance of “Wellerman” that I had seen – over the past month or so, spurred on by a Scottish musician named Nathan Evans and others, the sailors’ songs have become popular. increasingly popular on TikTok, then widely shared on other platforms. . “Wellerman”, the song which has become particularly prominent in recent days, has now been remixed and performed by other singers, and other songs of sailors began to appear. My favorite addition is the seasong reaction video, especially this one, which has the caption “when I hand it over to my brother”:

The magnetic thing about this TikTok reaction is how attracted the questionable brother is. First he’s skeptical of “Wellerman”, then he’s amused by how much his brother likes it. At the end, he’s on full blast, singing along with the choruses and offering a “oooOO” of harmony while his brother sings the verses. As with many of the best TikToks, it’s the naked, transparent sincerity that really sells the video. They’re both so in the song at the end, singing happily even though it’s an old song and the word Wellerman has been lost to history. (According to a few different sources, a Wellerman “is an employee of the 19th century Australian whaling company, the Weller Bros., and the song is about company ships arriving to supply the whalers.)

At first glance, it’s a little strange that digital culture in 2021 suddenly becomes obsessed with 200-year-old folk songs about men on whalers. They sound like prehistoric oddities, which is part of the appeal. Simplistic in structure, they are intentionally repetitive and full of ideas and references that seem very, very remote from life at the moment. Apart from the word Wellerman, they are full of harpoons and pierrades and the specifics of whale slaughter; the most recognizable lyrics are lines on “the turn of the cape” and the love of beautiful brown haired girls.

Sailors’ songs are also resistant to the cold. These are songs about whaling and strong winds, and they sound like a bowl of New England clam chowder: very White. There is some overlap between sailors chants and African American spirituals that deserve a lot more attention, but the default image of seasong as a genre is a group of white European sailors screaming “away Joe.” ” in harmony. The shock of being turned on this This is what we see on the face of the dubious brother of TikTok. “This? Really? This?

Sailor’s Song seems like the weirdest choice possible for this year’s new music trend, but as a longtime sailor-song fan (what can I say, I’m the type to read Horatio Hornblower novels in high school), I’m here to tell you that sailor songs mean so much right now, right now. They are songs with simple and straightforward rhythms, designed to be easy to learn and sing while doing the hard physical labor of navigating a large fishing boat. One person is the leader of the song, setting the beat and singing the verses, but the driving force behind the song is in the repeated chorus that everyone sings together over and over again. They are unifying survival songs, designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat.

At the present time, it is not safe to gather in a group. Each report deals with the division, the stalemate, the anger and the huge gulf between left and right. We’re all stuck staring at tiny screens in our own tiny individual boxes, desperately wanting to sing loud into a stranger’s face knowing that singing loud into a stranger’s face is incredibly dangerous right now. Perhaps it is a coincidence that millions of TikTokers rejoice in a centuries-old musical genre intended to bind separate bodies together in common, cooperative action. Maybe it’s just because “Wellerman” is a loud big bop from a song from any century.

But I don’t think so. Sailors’ songs are not the first pandemic example of a virtual but collective musical experience that has become the big trend of the day. Last fall there was the Ratatouille musical; earlier last summer there was a surge of love for two brothers making reaction videos as they first listen to popular pop songs; and the confinement of spring gave way to Verzuz. These phenomena stem from a thirst for the distinct and powerful way in which music can make people feel connected to each other. Sailors’ songs are just a more direct and musically explicit version of this desire. They are easy to learn for many people very quickly, and once everyone has learned the pattern, the Song of the Sea turns each participant into a small part of a collective whole.

So on a large scale, I’m really moved by the sudden attention to the songs of the sailors. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate musical form unexpectedly for a group of people yearning for a physical (and political and spiritual) connection. And for me, personally, I am Nice To Meet You to welcome our new slum overlords. There are so many other songs that deserve TikTok viral fame! My fingers crossed for “Blow the Man Down”.