Behind TikTok’s new sea shanties phenomenon
Scottish postie Nathan Evans has just quit his job. In the beginning of January 2021, his rendition of a 19th Century sea shanty called ‘The Wellerman’ became a viral hit.
Last Friday (January 22), Polydor Records, a Universal Music Group UK imprint, signed him to a record deal and released his rendition.
The 26-year old says: “I was a postman on Friday. Now I have just signed to the biggest record label in… the world”.
Sea shanties, sung by sailors moaning about the drudgery of long sea journeys, or keeping in time as they went about their work, have become much-in-demand on social media.
Last week, TikTok reported 70 million of its videos had the hashtag “#wellerman,” while another 2.6 billion were marked “sea shanty.”
They are dubbed Sea Shanty TikTok, or ShantyTok.
Whaling ballad ‘The Wellerman’ has its roots in Australia and New Zealand. Originally titled ‘Soon May The Wellerman Come’, it was written in New Zealand by an unknown teenage sailor some time between 1860 and 1870.
A ‘wellerman’ worked on supply ships owned by the English-born Weller brothers Edward, George and Joseph, who migrated to Sydney in 1829 and founded a whaling station at Otakou near modern Dunedin.
These ships brought provisions to NZ whalers, hence the chorus “Soon may the wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.”
The song became a TikTok hit last year by Bristol, UK-based acapella group The Longest Johns (under the name Wellerman), who had recorded it for their 2018 collection of nautical songs Between Wind And Water.
Pop analysts compare the social isolation of teenage whalers in the 19th Century to that of young people isolated under the COVID-19 pandemic. Both are “marking time”.
Evans suggested to CNN: “I think it’s because everyone is feeling alone and stuck at home during this pandemic and it gives everyone a sense of unity and friendship.
“Shanties are great because they bring loads of people together and anyone can join in. You don’t even need to be able to sing to join in on a sea shanty.”
Maybe to bored shut-ins, ShantyToks are about travel and adventure, or exciting pirates and buccaneers.
James Revell Carr, maritime-song scholar and professor at the University of Kentucky, told the Los Angeles Times: “They’re kind of bawdy. They’re kind of risqué. There’s something for the kid in you to get titillated by.
“And they’re just energetic — they’re used for working and so they’re meant to pump you up and get you pulling on that line or heaving that capstan around.”
In one week alone in January, The Longest Johns’ rendition of ‘Wellerman’ generated 2 million streams, and is now up to 5 million.
Nathan Evans took a different route.
In March, he joined TikTok and began uploading Scottish folk covers and some of his own stuff.
In July, a user requested he do a version of ‘Leave Her Johnny’, the last song the crew would sing as they got off the ship after a journey.
“I never listened to a sea shanty before,” Evans admits. “So I went to YouTube and found the song, and thought it was pretty good.”
It went on to get 1.1 million views, and he dug up more sea shanties and folk songs. One called ‘The Scotsman’ ended up with 2.8 million views.
A month later, he’d opened accounts on iTunes and Spotify, and was selling songs for 79 cents each.
On December 29, he uploaded ‘The Wellerman’.
Rather than just viewing it, people around the world began overlaying their vocals one after the other over his, creating EDM mixes, filming themselves dressed up in sailor suits singing to it, or recording their own sea shanties.
It notched up 8 million views and his TikTok followers ballooned to 500,000.
Evans plans on making a five-track sea shanty EP.
Whether he lasts the distance and is forced to go back to being a postie remains to be seen.
But he’s the latest to get a record deal after casting a long shadow on TikTok.
Last year alone, 70 artists who TikTok’d first went on to get record deals, the app reported in its 2020 end-of-year music report.