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Amid global media coverage of the pandemic and Donald Trump’s final days as President of the United States, an unexpected musical genre has gone viral on TikTok: traditional sea songs, spurring what has become the phenomenon. ShantyTok ”.
Global interest in ShantyTok began when a postman named Nathan Evans, who lives near Glasgow, Scotland, posted a video on TikTok of him singing “Soon May The Wellerman Come”, a 19th century slum sung by sailors equipping ships belonging to the Weller brothers, founders of a whaling station in New Zealand. These ships brought supplies to the Weller Whaling Station in Otakou (Otago) on the South Island of New Zealand.
SeaShantyTok keeps getting better pic.twitter.com/yWLEHzlPlB
– Peter Fries (@Peter_Fries) January 8, 2021
Evans, who became something of a media star on the back of his viral video, partially explained this lockdown phenomenon. He told the New York Times: “Without TikTok, I would be so bored and claustrophobic” – a condition that may also have been experienced by whalers.
These marine hunters would go out to sea for long periods in search of the world’s largest mammal. Evans’ performance has a genuine sense of stoic patience over it which certainly seems to have struck a chord with the COVID generation, who like whalers are also stalling.
TikTok allows users to add their own parts to previously released material and thus multiple singers, often sporting splendid beards, have layered harmonies, adding depth to Evans’ catchy performance, creating a meme in the process. There is also a folk violinist who adds a reel-type counter-melody, a techno remix, a fake pirate who adds his own commentary, a bodhran accompaniment by a lady in her kitchen with her son dancing a techno-jig behind her, pizza faces singing the different parts, and many more.
Is Wellerman even a slum?
Wellerman’s success did not come without his controversies. David Coffin, a folk musician and music teacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts, wonders if the song can even be called a slum. “It’s a slum-beat whaling song,” he told The New York Times.
The songs clearly illustrate the influence of the African American tradition of singing. Slaves working in the plantations in the south reproduced African song traditions to accompany their work. This practice has also been adopted by merchant seamen when performing specific tasks on sailing boats, such as pulling ropes and lifting anchors. These sea songs have a strong rhythmic flow and call and response structure, with the call being sung by the “singer,” a lead sailor who signaled each task with a specific song.
It is no coincidence that British sea songs “strikingly resemble the songs of Caribbean slaves”. Indeed, “the very practice of the slum may have its roots in the interaction of sailors and black dockers”. @bhatiap on the Haitian revolution: https://t.co/bmbJhMXNhh
– London Book Review (@LRB) January 15, 2021
Whaling songs, on the other hand, seem to have emerged from the slum tradition with the addition of a narrative structure of folk ballads. Wellerman shares many characteristics of the slum: its call and response form, strong pulse, and a melodic structure that rises and falls, much like a wave. However, the song also contains six verses that tell the story of a 40-day whaling expedition by a ship named Billy of Tea and the struggles of its crew to land a particularly restless whale.
There is innocence and integrity in Nathan Evans’ performance and in most of the responses. But there is darkness built into the song. The words of the chorus begin: “Soon, let the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar, tea and rum.” These were products that were brought back from what was known as the “triangular trade”, with enslaved Africans being sold to work on plantations in North America and the Caribbean and the products being brought back on return.
There has been some debate on social media about the “problematic” nature of these references. But an analysis of the lyrics shows that the song is neither a type of postcolonial criticism nor an acceptance of the exploitation of indigenous peoples or the slave trade. It can be seen as a true cultural expression by the exploited workers for whom “sugar, tea and rum” gave them a well-deserved respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily life.
In a world torn apart by competing ideologies, drowned in fake news, and with the lives of many people on hold because of COVID, it’s no surprise that joining an online community to harmonize a melody and lyrics that keep coming back to a simpler but more brutal past, has many attractions. Understanding the context behind these songs allows us to move beyond the visceral pleasures of collective performance and towards a more nuanced view of the world, encouraging us to consider what has changed since the days of the Wellerman.
Adrian York, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music Performance, University of Westminster
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.