As I was a walking down Paradise Street
A pretty young damsel I chanced for to meet.
“Way, hey, blow the man down!”
—from “Blow the Man Down”
For centuries, sea shanties (or chanteys) were part of seafaring tradition. Today, the mostly forgotten musical genre is enjoying a popular revival. Some think the global pandemic has hastened the toe-tapping, community-building sea shanty’s triumphant return.
A sea shanty was a work song used on sailing and whaling ships. The word comes from the French verb chanter, which means “to sing.” Shanties peaked in popularity at the end of the 1800s, as wooden ships gave way to steam vessels.
Shanties are call-and-response songs. Each begins with a solo line by a crew member called “the shantyman.” This person was usually someone with a good voice and a gift for adlibbing (making up verses). Fellow sailors responded with a refrain, such as, “Way, hey, blow the man down!”
Sailors were often at sea for months or years at a time. Dangers lurked on ships—from storms to accidents. Shanty scholar Jessica Floyd writes that shanties were historically “a release valve for loneliness, fear, and oppression.” The Bible reveals that God gave music for soothing agitated souls and minds.
Sea shanties also entertained the crew. Spur-of-the-moment lyrics acknowledged how quickly conditions could change. Strong beats helped sailors work in rhythm and mentally lightened their loads.
Music therapist Claire Maddocks thinks shanties’ appeal today is due to the “simplicity of a human voice” and the repetitive nature of the song. “We hear exactly where it is going to go next,” so we’re drawn in, she says.
Other folks think sea shanties are having a modern moment because of the genre’s teamwork—all the harmonizing lends a sense of togetherness—even over the internet. Further, some social media platforms let users sing right along with the artist. More togetherness.
A New Zealand band called The Salty Wailers started singing together a year ago. Group member Ben Bamford says the intention was “to get [everyone] involved with us, so that you can really bring the house down.”
Scottish postman Nathan Evans and folk band The Longest Johns have secured a number one record in the United Kingdom for a recording of the song “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” (“Wellerman” refers to an operator of a supply ship. The song dates back to the 1860s.)
There’s some discussion as to whether “Wellerman” counts as a shanty since Evans sings several lines in a row alone. But there’s no argument that it’s causing a splash. Evans’ version has over 10.9 million clicks.
Evans says that in the context of lockdown, with “everyone stuck in the house,” performing “Wellerman” has “uplifted us and kept us going.”