August 3, 2021

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How TikTok Turned The Sea Shanty Into A Viral Phenomenon

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TikTok seems to have an unparalleled ability to draw attention to the strange, the obscure, and the forgotten; even sea shanties can come back into style, eventually.   

In the last few weeks, the video-sharing platform has managed to catapult these charmingly melancholic songs into the mainstream, with many TikTok users finding themselves humming the tune of “Wellerman,” a New Zealand sea shanty that dates back to the nineteenth century.

TikToker/Scottish singer Nathan Evans seems to be responsible for the trend, with his rendition of “The Scotsman;” the song’s cheeky lyrics and nostalgic sound proved popular on the platform. Evans soon followed it up with “Wellerman;” the shanty conjures images of grim-faced sailors scrubbing the decks of their ship, waiting for the incoming delivery of treats to lessen their hardship. 

In the song, the titular “Wellerman” refers to a supply ship holding intoxicating contents that the sailors of a whaling ship are very much looking forward to. The “tonguing” refers to the butchering of the whale (after it’s been caught).

“Wellerman” proved strangely catchy, and soon sparked a trend known as ShantyTok, as other users lent their voice to the shanty using the duet feature. Eventually, this morphed into an entire chorus, adding to the evocative, nostalgic nature of the song. 

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Other users inserted musical instruments, played with their vocals using digital tools, and even remixed sea shanties into EDM songs, seamlessly blending the old with the new. 

These threads of connected Tiktoks, endlessly tweaking the song through unorganized creative collaboration, ironically echoes the way in which sea shanties and folk songs would traditionally emerge. 

While sailors once sang these shanties during long stretches of grueling physical labor, today’s TikTok users are likely stuck at home, bored during the pandemic, and are finding new ways to express themselves. 

The trend shows off the positive side of TikTok; while every other social media platform seems to devolve into a stagnant space, defined by cyclical culture wars and increasingly petty arguments, TikTok seems to have sparked an incredible amount of creative collaboration. 

Tiktokers dueting with each other, adding instrumentals and vocals to each other’s songs, is exactly how the Ratatouille musical was composed, organically emerging from the platform.

I don’t know how long sea shanties are going to stick around, but it’s certainly one of the more positive trends to emerge during an otherwise unsettling month.

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