They say that trends and fads are cyclical in history: What’s popular today might be out of fashion tomorrow, but give it enough time and it’ll come back. There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon. Leather jackets, high-waisted jeans, peasant blouses, and more types of clothing have gone in and out of trending styles since their introductions. Words and phrases seem to come and go from the public dialogue, rising and falling on the ever-changing tides of popularity. Some trends move quickly, others slowly.
And late last year, into the beginning of this year, a very strange and long-cycled trend came to pass. In an unusual turn of events, the most modern of systems – the ability of the Internet and video-sharing apps, in this case TikTok, to create viral phenomena that spread like wildfire across the public conscious – was used to resurrect and make popular again a music genre that had by and large faded into obscurity and obsolescence.
Amid a global pandemic and political unrest, in the waning days of 2020, the sea shanty (or, more accurately, sea song) suddenly had an outburst of popularity.
It started with one song, “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” being sung by one voice and offered into the public sphere. But just like the shanties themselves that filled the air of sailing vessels centuries ago, this simple rendition was soon joined by other voices. More and more people across the world joined in with singing that song, and soon other shanties as well. Thousands or even millions of new renditions and duets and choruses have been created as people all across the globe discovered the wonder and fun of this centuries-old musical genre.
I’m no stranger to it myself. I didn’t get immediately involved in the first wave of the sea songs’ new popularity, but I’ve been familiar with them for a long time. Growing up in Massachusetts and having plenty of interest in history and heritage, it’s impossible to think I’d have even reached 10 years old without knowing something about New England’s long history with sailing and whaling. Add to that family who served in the Navy, and a grandfather who makes annual trips with the windjammers that still sail the coast the way they did 300 years ago, and I’ve had at least a little relation to sailing and sea songs for most of my life.
Now, more recently, I’ve had some of my own personal projects related to that era of history, and that culture of sailing in the Ages of Exploration and Colonization. And it really is impossible to divorce that culture from the songs that were such a huge part of it. In an age where oral storytelling was the most common kind, and a setting where a sailor’s voice was the only instrument they might reliably have at hand, those songs were everything.
I’ve been adding songs to playlists for music while I work or drive or just want to relax. I’ve learned and rewritten lyrics, and even recorded myself singing for one of my projects. I’ve shared these songs with family and friends, and caught them humming or whistling or singing along after even a single verse or chorus.
But it’s been a long time since the Age of Sail. Relatively few men and women still ply a trade on board ships at all, let alone on ships driven solely by wind and sail, adrift on the ocean for weeks at a time with no other options for entertainment or respite. So what is it about these songs that can reach across the years and call out to something in our modern, landlocked hearts?
It seems to me that the answer is in the purpose and meaning of the songs: the sensations and experiences they capture, the emotions they spark, the stories they tell. In a blog post from a couple weeks ago, I touched on the importance of music, but I think it’s worth realizing just how much of a cultural touchstone and centerpiece music can be. The oldest instrument we’ve found is a flute dated to be 60,000 years old, likely carved by a Neanderthal in an age we can only imagine. Music has been a part of human history for a long time, and always it has served to inspire us, to fill our hearts and minds with memories not our own.
The shanties and sea songs were no different in that regard, but they were also grounded in the experiences of the men and women who sang them. They likely grew directly from popular folk songs of the day and the oral storytelling traditions of the lands from which those sailors came.
Shanties in particular were work songs. Their simple melodies would have been familiar to many sailors, drawn from popular folk songs, and easy to learn and remember. They were constructed around straightforward verses that often had lyrics that were either plainly descriptive or more or less without any meaning, followed by refrains where all hands would join in both the singing and the work. The rhythm of the shanty was formed entirely around the work to be done, with refrains having obvious places for hauling lines, heaving weights, or pumping water.
The broader category of sea songs – sometimes called forecastle songs or forebitters – saw more use for entertainment and relaxation, and were more largely used for storytelling. And it’s that aspect that I think is what makes them still so relatable and popular, especially in the uncertain world of today. The songs of sailors long at sea were focused on the experiences those sailors knew: the joy of returning to port; the sorrowful resignation of returning to sea; the danger of the ocean, and the rewards it could bring.
Considered in those terms, we can’t relate. But broaden the view and the connection becomes clear. Are our lives so different after all? Don’t we know the perils of an uncertain existence, a world where day-to-day life seems fraught with unknown dangers and where chaos seems to be the rule? Can’t we understand the simple and overwhelming comfort of returning to home, to safety and the familiar? Are we so distanced from the mixed blessings of a life where risk and reward too often meet?
We are all of us sailors and whalers still, forging our own way through a world we rarely understand. We are all of us beset on all sides by waves of uncertainty, with no choice but to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. We don’t always know what will be on the other side of those dark thunderheads. We don’t always have the comforts of home. But we have one another, our fellow passengers and crewmates and family on this voyage of life. We have the songs we sing together, our voices raised in triumph and sorrow and defiance and remembrance and passion and community.
We have our songs, our shanties, our stories. May they ever be raised to the wind and rain, regardless of the years that pass or the lives we lead.
If you, too, would like to join in the community of storytelling and song, then please attend the free concerts offered by the LIVE! from Lewisburg and Music in the Park series. Make sure to also keep an eye out for updates on the LIVE! from Lewisburg Variety Show, which will be our own effort to capture the elation and fun of community entertainment in a format from yester-year.