2021: The Year of the Sea Chantey

James Revell Carr, University of Kentucky

At the start of 2021, an unlikely song became number 1 in the UK hit parade: the sea chantey The Wellerman in a modern day TikTok version. For the PortCityFutures blog, James Revell Carr  (Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Musicology at the University of Kentucky) reflects on the history of the sea chantey and why these songs on homesickness and rum keep resurfacing in maritime communities and popular culture. 

A score of windows are open, and a young woman with the schooner Bill of Rights as her background leads a lively version of the song “Rollicking Randy Dandy-O.” Although all the other singers are muted, each is clearly singing along with gusto. This is not the latest viral video from the notorious “#ShantyTok” craze of early 2021, but a pandemic-era, virtual iteration of a venerable San Francisco tradition known as the Hyde Street Pier Sea Chantey Sing-Along. In 1981, Park Ranger Dave Nettell began a monthly tradition of gathering amateur singers, in the hold of the three-masted lumber schooner C.A. Thayer near the infamous Fisherman’s Wharf for a long evening of rowdy and ribald sailor songs and ballads. Today, the Sing-Along is an institution, with singers from all over the world joining the livestream. The fact that sea chanteys became a fad in 2021, was not particularly surprising for those of us who have already been part of the sea music scene, because we know the joy of bringing voices together in song and musically time traveling to the age of sail.

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National Park Ranger Celeste Bernardo leads the Hyde Street Pier Sea Chantey Sing-Along in the hold of the three-masted lumber schooner C.A. Thayer on San Francisco Bay, circa 1990. (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)​​​​​

When singer Nathan Evans of Scotland, UK, posted a recording of the semi-obscure New Zealand whalers’ song The Wellerman, he was just trying to diversify his TikTok repertoire of folk music and pop covers. A few days later, a young singer with the handle “Luke the Voice” added a stunning bass part. The craze had begun, with hundreds of other singers using the app’s layering function to add their own voices to the rapidly growing chorus. To say that the “ShantyTok” phenomenon surprised the popular culture press would be an understatement. The craze was spoofed by late night comedy shows including Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live, and dozens upon dozens of pieces were run asking: “Why sea chanteys?”

The Wellerman - TikTok Sea Shanty mashup 2021, Dubbac Media, January 13, 2021.

Contrary to what you might see on TikTok, “sea music” is not a monolithic genre of vaguely Irish-sounding drinking songs, but a remarkably diverse collection of work songs, ballads, drinking songs, humorous songs, jigs and hornpipes, as well as revival-era compositions in the style of nineteenth century “folk” music. The most well-known category of sea music is the “chantey” (also spelled “shanty”), a genre of work song sung aboard deep-water sailing vessels, particularly whalers and packet ships, primarily during the middle of the nineteenth century. The chantey tradition as it is known today traces its origins to ports in the U.S. South like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and Mobile in the early nineteenth century, where Black stevedores and other dock workers, particularly those responsible for “screwing” cargoes of cotton into the holds of ships, used songs to keep time and coordinate their labor. Many of their songs were adopted by the men who operated those ships, who found that these work songs greatly aided their shipboard labor, such as hauling up sails, but particularly jobs that used heavy machinery like the capstan, pump-brake windlass, or the flywheel pumps. These songs, and the knowledge of how to use them, quickly spread throughout the maritime trade routes of the world, from Southern California, to Honolulu, to South Australia and New Zealand, to Liverpool and New York. One of the earliest published accounts of chanteying, from Richard Henry Dana’s book Two Years Before the Mast, depicts Hawaiian singers leading chanteys for American sailors off the coast of Alta California in the 1830s.

Fast-forward a hundred years to the 1940s and the sea chantey revival began when the Almanac Singers, led by Pete Seeger, released an album of sea chanteys, which were regarded at the time as an obsolete and “lost” genre of music. In the 1960s, Seeger brought several singers from the UK to sing chanteys aboard the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, beginning the American tradition of sea songs being used in environmental education and living history programs, aboard working vessels. Not long after that, maritime museums like South Street Seaport in New York City, the San Francisco Maritime Museum, and Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut began using sea songs in their public education programs, and hosting festivals where enthusiasts could come together and sing songs about whaling, drinking, and pretty girls ashore, at the top of their lungs, to their hearts’ content.

The Almanac Singers, Blow the Man Down, from the album “Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads”, 1941.

I ran the sea chantey sing-alongs at Hyde Street Pier for several years in the 1990s, and my favorite thing about it has always been the unabashed amateurishness of the whole endeavor. While there were always “regulars,” professional and semi-professional singers who served as the program’s core, the most magical moments at the chantey sings came from the people who did not have musical training or expertise, but whose enthusiasm and verve engaged everyone in the room. This has always been a particular strength of global sea song traditions––that the songs are designed to be sung in full-voice by sailors, longshoremen, dock hands, and deck hands, without requiring any knowledge of music or even of the song being sung. One saying about sea songs is that they are like a lifeline thrown to a man overboard; it doesn’t matter where you catch on, as long as you grab ahold before it goes by. Sailor’s songs are not intended to be concert music, but rather they serve to bring people together, everyone taking turns leading and following, creating the kind of deeply engrossing participatory musical experience that has all but vanished from twenty-first century Western society. So, during this year when we have all been physically isolated from one another for so long, people have discovered the joy of singing chanteys and other maritime music as a way of making connections around the globe.

Before the pandemic moved the event online, the Sea Chantey Sing-Along at Hyde Street Pier was being held aboard the paddlewheel steamer Eureka, where as many as 200 singers gathered each month on the ferryboat's car deck to raise their voices in song. (Photo by the author)

This year, the sea music scene has had quite a roller coaster ride. The giddy high of seeing our beloved music reaching unprecedented pop culture relevance was followed by disappointment that, in the aftermath of the global Covid-19 pandemic, our favorite sea music festivals had been cancelled. But perhaps this moment will come to represent a kind of changing of the guard. The popular image of sea chantey singers is one of grizzled old men with whiskey-soaked voices emanating from beneath massive beards. But the sailors who loved chanteys back in the nineteenth century were young: the average age of an ordinary seaman was around 19. These young sailors were, like the internet surfers of today, connected to global networks of work and trade, and they transported products, news, music and other popular culture to far-flung parts of the globe. Many of the scholars who, in the early twentieth century, helped to document and preserve the sea chantey tradition were women, and women continue to be core members of the sea music scene and to add new dimensions to the genre. Although it seems archaic today, sea music is different enough from everything else on the radio that it feels like a breath of fresh sea air, while also having the driving rhythm and power that resonates with young audiences accustomed to pop music. Perhaps #ShantyTok will only be a fleeting fad, but hopefully the young people who are spearheading this fad today will become the grizzled veterans of the future sea music community.

James Revell Carr is an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Musicology at the University of Kentucky and Director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music. Guest blogs are edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team, Carola Hein and Hilde Sennema