TikTok is famously a hitmaking platform. You don’t have to look much further than the career trajectories of musicians like Lil Nas X, Megan Thee Stallion, and Doja Cat for proof of its power. So, it’s a little puzzling to learn that some of the hottest tunes on the app right now are more than 600 years old. Improbably, TikTok has fallen in love with sea shanties, the centuries-old folk songs chanted by crews of whalers and fishermen while hoisting sails and swabbing the decks or whatever else people did on ships back then.
Why legions of people are suddenly singing about drunken sailors on social media isn't entirely clear. But we do know that the “shantytok” trend started with a Scottish singer named Nathan Evans, who covered a tune called “The Scotsman” in late December. When that video took off, he posted a follow-up called “The Wellerman,” a 19th-century shanty from New Zealand about waiting on supplies of tea, sugar, and rum from an Australian company called Weller Brothers.
Turns out, TikTok’s “duet” feature lends itself handsomely to the collaborative nature of shanties. Before long, tons of musically minded users were layering their voices on top of Evans’s original videos, riffing on his melodies, and adding harmonies of their own. Instrumentalists got involved, adding orchestrations until the crowdsourced creations sounded like fully produced tracks. At this point the hashtag "#seashanty" is up to 73.5 million views.
The evolution of the shanties is reminiscent of another recent collaborative creative endeavor on TikTok: the Ratatouille musical dreamt up by Pixar superfans and brought to life by Broadway professionals.
Still, shanties don’t seem suited to 2021 sensibilities. The old-timey lyrics confound modern ears. (Who are his "bully boys" and what does it mean for them to "blow"?) One knee-jerk response to the trend is that it’s a hipster gimmick. But once you dive into sea shanty TikTok, there’s no denying the tunes are catchy. Watch enough of them and you too might be hooked… line and sinker. (Ba dum tsh.)
TikTok user @strong_promises, a 23-year-old nursing school graduate from Texas, captured the visceral thrill of getting into “shantytok” in a post he made two days ago. “Get this man off the aux,” he captioned video of his brother queuing up “The Wellerman” on their car stereo. Cut to the chorus, and @strong_promises cracks a grin, conceding that whatever he’s hearing is “actually kinda lit.” By the end of the TikTok, both men are harmonizing along. It’s such a compelling example of how quickly these songs catch on.
Mic reached out to @strong_promises to ask what about shanties won him over. “My brother sometimes plays some questionable music, so it wasn’t out of character,” he told us via direct message. “As you can see, I was skeptical at first, but the easy-to-sing-along lyrics, amazing voice, and my brother’s energy were contagious. Now I listen to that song when I go on long [car] rides all the time.”
I asked him why he thought sea shanties were having a moment now, so far removed from the high seas where they were meant to be sung. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he conceded, but “it might be because of quarantine life. People are staying indoors, isolated. But this song reminds people of all the fun people [can have] together, because it’s a sing-along — anyone can join.”
Songs to endure the interminable waves of uncertainty — that seems about right for 2021.