A Deep Dive Into the Sea Shanty Craze, And Why Chicago Was Ahead of the TikTok Trend

Sea shanties were sung by sailors while performing certain tasks on board ship. (Bernhard Staerck / Pixabay)Sea shanties were sung by sailors while performing certain tasks on board ship. (Bernhard Staerck / Pixabay)

Viral sensations are, by definition, impossible to predict.

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No one saw the ice bucket challenge coming or the frenzy over Bernie Sanders’ mittens, not even the woman who made them. And who could have anticipated “The Dress” phenomenon that had us all obsessed for a hot minute in 2015? (Remember? “It’s blue.” “You’re blind, it’s white.”)

Yet even by those standards, people’s out-of-left-field infatuation with sea shanties, fueled by TikTok, feels even more random than the average inexplicable internet craze.

If you’re not up to speed on the sea shanty situation, here’s a quick recap: A guy in Scotland, Nathan Evans, posted his performance of “The Wellerman” — a traditional a capella seafaring folk song (aka, “shanty”) — to TikTok, and other people used the platform’s duet function to turn his original video into a singalong. It caught fire, who knows why, but everyone wanted in on the act, from Jimmy Fallon and The Roots to Andrew Lloyd Weber to the U.S. Navy Band, which shanty-fied Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together” in a parody that the Twitter-verse did not appreciate.

So that’s where we are: It’s 2021 and the internet has us dressing up in “Moby Dick” cosplay, singing about hoisting sails. Feeling left out? Dig up a peacoat, find a fisherman’s sweater and register for Saturday’s shanty workshop as part of the University of Chicagos (virtual) Folk Festival

Here’s what separates shanties (alternatively, “chanteys”) from other social media fads: The internet didn’t create them, and once the glare of the spotlight dims, they’re not going anywhere.

Shanties have already proven their staying power. They’ve endured for centuries, not as the musical equivalent of museum pieces but as a living art form, still sung, unironically, at folk fests and in pubs. They’ve even made incursions into the mainstream, like their use as the soundtrack to the video game “Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag.”

Chicago has one of the nation’s more active shanty scenes, in part owing to a vibrant folk music culture but also because of the city’s history as a maritime hub in days of yore, which might be news to some. (San Francisco, home to the Maritime National Historic Park, and Mystic Seaport in Connecticut are among the other shanty strongholds.)

The response to the TikTok hype from local folks who’ve been stoking the shanty flames all these years has been one of bemusement, in a “welcome to the party, are you sure you’re at the right place?” kind of way. Will any of the come-latelys turn into permanent converts? Possibly. Shanties, fans say, have a way of hooking people and drawing them in to follow where the songs lead, into history’s deep waters.

When the Scotsman Evans started racking up hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok for his shanty videos, people took note and reached out to Kathy Whisler. Typical message: “Have you seen this?!” 

“Everyone knows I’m that person,” said Whisler.

For the better part of 10 years, Whisler has organized monthly shanty sings in Chicago, usually at the Atlantic Bar & Grill in Lincoln Square. (Whisler said shanties are often misidentified as Irish folk music because Irish pubs such as the Atlantic are so accommodating to singing groups.)

Pre-coronavirus, the singalongs had a loyal following among both longtime aging boomer folkies and a new generation of millennials introduced to shanties by bands like British-based upstarts The Longest Johns, current darlings of the shanty world.

“People are either older than me or younger than me,” Whisler, a Gen Xer, said of the usual shanty crowd.

Her love of the genre goes back roughly 20 years, when she and her then-boyfriend-now-husband were introduced to shanties at a tall ships festival in Bay City, Michigan, where they’d traveled to catch a show by a musician they liked.

Whisler said shanties appealed to her then for the same reasons people are enjoying them now: They’re easy to learn and they’re easy to sing.

“Generally speaking, the range of notes in the songs are relatively narrow. They’re not complex rhythmically, they’re very repetitive,” Whisler said.

The refrain for the classic shanty “Drunken Sailor,” for example, takes just seconds to memorize: “Weigh heigh and up she rises” over and over and over again.

Tom Kastle, one of the performers Whisler met at that fateful tall ships festival, has taught shanties for years, including classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music. His students have ranged from elementary school children to older adults in memory care programs, and they all can master the shanty “John Kanaka,” he said.

“It works on some root level, there’s something inherent in the call and response,” Kastle said. “It’s primal.”

Though shanties are meant to be sung by a group, they don’t call for the same kind of technical skill as choral music; no one needs to learn the alto or soprano part. It’s the difference, in short, between singing in unison and singing in harmony. So the bar for participating is set relatively low.

“People are perhaps realizing, ‘I can sing,’” Whisler said.

That accessibility and simplicity, compared with today’s heavily processed popular music, could explain why shanties appeared poised for a cultural moment well before TikTok got wise to them, she said.

Whisler recalled presenting a shanty workshop at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in February 2020, when people still went to things like festivals in person. As attendees flowed in and out of her session, they would offer up song titles for the group to sing. One latecomer after another called out for “The Wellerman,” long after, unbeknownst to them, it had already been sung early in the workshop. The song had clearly struck a chord.

“It was already bubbling up,” Whisler said, thanks to The Longest Johns. “It’s catchy as heck.”

But the music is only one side of the shanty story.

Thousands of tall ships once traversed the Great Lakes, the tractor-trailers of their day. (Erich Westendarp / Pixabay)Thousands of tall ships once traversed the Great Lakes, the tractor-trailers of their day. (Erich Westendarp / Pixabay)

Shanty aficionados liken “The Wellerman” to a gateway, an introduction to both the deeper repertoire of shanties and the maritime history tied to them.

Kastle is an extreme case in point. “I was an Irish folk singer and the next thing I was a tall ship captain,” he said. (He got his license in 1996.)

He’s crewed on ships, co-founded the Chicago Maritime Festival — which ran for more than a decade —  and generally fallen so deep under shanties’ spell that he’s well versed in the contents of ships’ musty old log books and has scoured university archives in search of songs and sailing lore specifically linked to the Great Lakes.

The heyday of tall ships on the Great Lakes is an intriguing period, lasting from the Civil War to 1900. During that time, some 2,000 such ships traversed the region’s waters like the tractor-trailers of their day, Kastle said, making Chicago one of the busiest ports in the world. 

Today, a tall ship festival with maybe a dozen vessels docked at Navy Pier might draw a million visitors eager to view the spectacle. “In 1900, there would have been 10 times that number (of ships), and they just called it ‘Tuesday,’” said Kastle.

When the city emerged from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, it was a veritable armada of tall ships — “It looked like a forest of masts,” Kastle said — that sailed into harbor, delivering the lumber needed to rebuild.

“We just kind of forgot about it,” Kastle said of the brief tall ships era, cut short by the introduction of steam power. “I grew up in Chicago and I didn’t know we had this whole thing. It got swept under the rug … but there’s this world-wide maritime community and Chicago’s part of it.”

Compared with ocean-going routes, the Great Lakes had a reputation as a sailors’ paradise, Kastle said. The ports were close together and the lakes themselves contained an abundance of fresh water, so the rationing of food and drink — common on the high seas — was a non-issue. The lack of privation, coupled with a less militaristic style of discipline, attracted sailors from around the globe, and they brought their shanties with them.

It was the original “world music” Kastle said.

Shanties are meant to be sung by sailors while performing certain tasks on board a ship, a way to stay entertained, sure, but mostly to keep sailors in sync, literally pulling in the same direction. A shanty’s length would match the job at hand, and so would the rhythm. The lyrics, typically constructed in rhyming couplets, could be improvised on the spot, inspired by whatever was happening in the moment.

“Shanties were a legal way of letting off steam,” Kastle said. “You couldn’t say the captain was a so-and-so, but you could sing it.”

Shanties were most definitely sung at sea, but not exclusively. It's more accurate to think of them as work songs than maritime music, academics say. (Pixabay)Shanties were most definitely sung at sea, but not exclusively. It's more accurate to think of them as work songs than maritime music, academics say. (Pixabay)

Though shanties are most often associated with the overly romanticized period of tall ships seafaring, it’s a mistake and disservice to link them exclusively to sailors and sailing.

“Ships were only one context,” said Gibb Schreffler, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Pomona College. 

Schreffler has been researching shanties for more than a decade and said that while, yes, shanties were sung aboard ships, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s more accurate to think of them as work songs than sea songs, he said, with much deeper roots in African American music. 

The word “shanty” might not have appeared in print until the 1850s, but songs with similar characteristics — in terms of melody, meter, etc. — are much older. It’s just that the people writing about shanties — and setting the historic record related to the songs — weren’t visiting plantations and listening to slaves, according to Gibb.

By the time the shanty style of song had reached ships and other cultures adopted it, the music had become everybody’s, “like rock ’n’ roll,” Gibb said.

The point, he said, is not to deny that shanties were sung at sea, but to open up the notion of who sang shanties, and where. 

It’s not surprising, he said, that shanties’ TikTok trendiness has been embraced largely by white people, who can claim ownership of the maritime music of their seafaring ancestors. Meanwhile, people whose culture contributed to the creation of the genre remain largely unaware that the music is theirs, too.

“Black people are disenfranchised from the possibility of even knowing this,” Gibb said. 

Exclusivity is the opposite of what shanties are designed for — to be sung collectively by common laborers.

Indeed, both Gibb and Whisler said what they think people are responding to about shanties more than anything is less the subject matter or style than the sense of camaraderie and community they evoke, particularly at a point in time when we’ve all had quite enough of social isolation.

“We’re all trying to reach out to others,” Whisler said. “(Shanties) do invite you to sing along. Philosophically you’re coming together, even if we’re doing them electronically.”

Shanties provide common ground, in the sense that with music carved up into so many niches, Americans to a large extent lack a shared songbook, Whisler said.

Think of songs like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” or even “Go Cubs Go,” and how fun it is to belt them out, and how few opportunities exist to do just that even in non-pandemic times. In that context, the shanty trend starts to make sense, filling a hole we didn’t even realize was there.

The novelty aspect of shanties serves another purpose, Gibb said: that of providing “permission” to sing in the first place.

“Americans of recent times have a real issue with singing. They’re embarrassed or shy,” he said. “It’s possible that the silliness provides a little cover to that, by pre-acknowledging this isn’t ‘serious.’”

Once people do work up the nerve to sing, they tend to discover it’s fun, Whisler said, and fun, of late, has been in short supply.

“It makes you feel better, it really does,” she said. “It makes you breathe deeply, you kind of have to sit up or stand up straight. I do believe singing  physically makes a person feel better.”

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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