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Sea chanteys have exploded thanks to TikTok

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If your go-to sea chantey contains the line "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum," most people who actually know something about sea chanteys — or, more properly, "work songs of the sea" — will think you're an idiot. They'll also roll their eyes because they correctly assume the next thing you'll do is affect a pirate's leer and say, "Aaargh."

Ordinarily, such observations are reserved for drunks at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, or at sea music or Pirate Days festivals, or, in our area, for when tourists visit Mystic Seaport and encounter the facility's Chanteymen, who wander the grounds performing, ah, chanteys.

However, the "niche" aspect of sea chanteys has, of late, exploded in remarkable and global fashion thanks to the December TikTok posting of an a capella rendition of a chantey called "Soon May the Wellerman Come" by a 26-year-old Scottish postman named Nathan Evans. It's been viewed more than 4.3 million times and is behind a new movement of folks posting their own versions of chanteys on TikTok. The craze is called Shanty Tok, and one advantage of the TikTok is that participants can add their own vocal harmony clusters in what are genuinely gratifying moments of social and artistic collaboration.

On Friday, Evans, a sea music enthusiast who years ago set up a consistently ignored website devoted to New Zealand folk music that included plenty of chanteys, signed a contract with Polydor Records to release an album of chanteys — and, yes, "Wellerman" will be the first single. 

As to why Evans's rendition particularly resonates, he told The Guardian, "My guess is that the COVID lockdowns have put millions of young (people) into a similar situation that young whalers were in 200 years ago: confined for the foreseeable future, often far from home, running out of necessities, always in risk of sudden death, and spending long hours with no communal activities to cheer them up."

A "Wellerman," by the way, refers to an employee of an early 19th-century shipping company out of New South Wales owned by the Weller family. The song is a hopeful plea from a whaling crew that a boat of supplies from the Wellers will arrive soon.

Local chanteyman

You probably didn't know the Weller minutiae — but rest assured Mystic's Craig Edwards does. Edwards is a multi-instrumentalist and has been Mystic Seaport Chanteyman since 1992. He's also a degreed ethnomusicologist who can perform a wide variety of folk music styles with virtuosity and affection. Both as a solo artist and as a member of the now-defunct Seaport-based chantey band Forebitter, Edwards has toured the world performing sea music.

Of "Soon May the Wellerman Come," Edwards says by phone Wednesday, "It's a song with a very singable chorus and a strong rhythm and the call and response element. It's easy to follow along with. It's a really cool phenomenon that this has taken off and a whole movement has arisen. It shows how traditional social power and current technology enable us to connect in ways not possible a century ago. Beyond that, real chantey fans will tell you 'Wellerman' is not technically a work song; it's an entertainment."

Edwards cheerfully acknowledges this is a lot of information perhaps not required by the Shanty Tok enthusiasts. But he's delighted any time people express interest in the music. In fact, his belief in the contagious power of sea chanteys is based on history.

"I'm actually not taken aback that this sudden popularity could happen," Edwards says. "Since starting at the Seaport all those years ago, I've been exposed to the magnetic power of that kind of social singing community at festivals. It's pretty infectious."

He adds that, tsunami power of social media aside, the current craze is not the first modern major chantey revival.

Not the first resurgence

"In the late 1970s, before the Iron Curtain fell," Edwards says, "chanteys became a popular form of subtle social resistance among young people in Poland. The popularity burgeoned through the '80s and after the curtain fell. Now, the grandchildren of the people who started that movement are heavily into it, and one of the largest chantey festivals in the world is held every year in Krakow."

Not only were chanteys, then, a galvanizing force within large groups of young people, but the original a capella performances evolved, as they did onboard ship, to include instrumentation — absorbing other musical styles including folk, polka, and even metal.

The form has taken root in America, too. Chicago, for example, with one of the largest populations of Polish citizens in the world, has a strong chantey base. And, Edwards adds, the form is flourishing — or was until the pandemic — at Mystic Seaport. In that fashion, there are sea music festivals all over the world where fans of the music congregate and sing along. And the crowds are increasingly diverse.

"In 2019, the Seaport celebrated the 40th anniversary of its sea music festival," Edwards says. "And one thing I definitely noticed was that, in the previous seven or eight years, what had been a graying audience started to be refreshed by a growing percentage of young people. It's fun music to sing and play, and with sea music, I think you see a strong tradition of older generations teaching the younger ones."

Before you gather the church choir or your boy scout troop for a hearty session of sea chantey warbling, it's best to remember the original songs contained a lot of sexist and racist lyrics; it's part of the  body of literature and, to that extent, has historical significance. At the same time, Edwards says, there are approaches in classrooms or festivals where these issues are addressed up front as teaching opportunities; groups also change the lyrics for the benefit of younger audiences.

For local fans, it's worth noting that Mystic Seaport's annual Chantey Blast, a fundraiser to support live performance of sea music at the facility, will take place as a virtual event from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 6.

Knowing the proper chantey

While changing chantey lyrics to reflect the times — and for tender ears — is certainly understandable, it brings up a deeper historical question about the form of sea chanteys. Millions of fans can now sing "Wellerman," and the stereotypes of sea chantey culture might suggest a sort of "if you know one, you know 'em all!" presumption about the music's contstruction. That's far from the case. 

"A lot of people have been contacting me (since 'Wellerman' took off on TikTok)," Edwards says, "and I explain that there are two aspects to this. On one hand, it's great whenever someone discovers a song like 'Wellerman' and draws other people to it. On the other hand, I wear my historian's hat. Actual chanteys are work songs used by isolated crews in the ocean to help get things done, and there's specific structures that apply."

Edwards lists a variety of "types" of chanteys including short-drag, halyard, capstan (or windlass), forecastle, and pumping. A capstan chantey, for example, would be sung for raising or lowering heavy sails or the ship's anchors, while a pumping chantey was used to pump the bilge dry in what were typically leaky wooden ships. All chanteys have call-and-response structures in which the leader of any group performing a specific task calls out the verses, and the rest of the group joins in on the chorus response.

"Not just any chantey can be used for any task," Edwards says. "The rhythms and lyrics are related to the physical motions being made to perform a particular job. Accents kick in for applications of applied force at a precise moment."

For his part, yes, since the "Wellerman" phenomenon broke, Edwards has been fielding plenty of calls for performances (when pandemic restrictions ease) and for interviews, Zoom appearances and virtual speaking engagements. And Forebitter released a few albums that are still in circulation, so who knows? Maybe Polydor will rerelease them.

One thing Edwards hopes, though, is that younger chantey enthusiasts don't start writing their own material. "You can write a call-and-response sea song," he says, "but if it's not used to work on a ship, is it a chantey? People do write songs in the form and make up lyrics about stuff a crew might be going through at sea. Those songs fail to capture me." He laughs. "Even the best of those writers can do some really singable songs, but I've yet to hear one that doesn't have a logical narrative or technical flaw." 



Craig Edwards's Favorite Chanteys

The number of historical sea chanteys is in the hundreds, though the actual providence for the tunes is mostly unknown. Craig Edwards, who has performed chanteys for decades, says he could perform well over 100 back-to-back before he ran out of material he personally knows.

Here are his top five favorites.

1. "Walk Along, You Sally Brown"
2. "Way Stormalong John"
3. "Liverpool Packet"
4. "Huckleberry Hunting"

5. "Lowlands (My Dollar and a Half a Day)"


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