Kitchener-Waterloo

Social media's sea shanty trend scores well with musician-curator

Ian Bell, musician and former curator of Port Dover Harbour Museum, says it makes sense that sea shanties are taking off on social media right now because they are participatory and easy to learn.

Singing shanties is 'the musical equivalent of learning to bake your own bread,' Ian Bell said

After the19th century New Zealand sea shanty Soon May the Wellerman Come started trending on TikTok, sea shanties have exploded in popularity. Some say that's no surprise, as the traditional chants were designed to distract people from pain, much like what we're going through in a global pandemic. (Nathan Evans, Promise Ozowulu)

Southern Ontario folk musician Ian Bell says it makes sense that sea shanties are taking off on social media right now because they are participatory and easy to learn.

"It's easier to learn Heave 'Er Up and Bust 'Er than it is to try and figure out all the bits for, say Bohemian Rhapsody or something," Bell, who is also the former curator of the Port Dover Harbour Museum, told CBC. 

"I think for a lot of people, singing shanties at this moment is like the musical equivalent of learning to bake your own bread."

The social media platform Tik Tok is awash in videos of people performing the traditional work songs or altering others' videos of them, and even talk show hosts such as Stephen Colbert have gotten in on the action.

The songs are appealing because of their communal nature, Bell said.

"There is nothing better than being in a large gang of people who are singing their faces off often in three or four part harmonies, and it's one of those situations where it kind of goes beyond musical. You know the vibrations can go right through you," he said.

One of the best shanty sings used to take place at the Mill Race Festival in Cambridge, he said, where 60 or 70 singers would pack into the Kiwi Pub and belt out the numbers.

Musician Ian Bell has been singing sea shanties for many years and says he loves shanties about the Great Lakes because of the local connection. (ianbellmusic.ca)

Songs to make work easier

Shanties aren't so much songs as they are templates of songs, Bell said.

The rhythm helped workers carry out tasks in unison such as pulling in sails on sailboats.

"Some of the jobs needed a bunch of short pulls, and some of the jobs needed longer pulls, and so there was a whole repertoire of songs that fitted those needs and that the sailors sang to make the work go a little more easily," he said.

But the lyrics were fluid.

Each work crew might have a shantyman — possibly the person with the loudest voice — who might recall some of the original words to the number, but there was a lot of improvisation, Bell explained.

"If the job wasn't over and he'd finished the song, 'Well, we'll add a verse about the cook,'" he added.

Great Lakes shanties name local spots

A number of sea shanties were written on or about the Great Lakes and they are particular to the types of ships on the lakes, he said. Specifically, they were schooners rather than clipper ships. 

There were lots of capstan shanties, or songs sung while rotating the capstan to pull in an anchor, he said. Some also specifically mention the lakes or the surrounding areas.

"They mention Buffalo and they mention Long Point and they mention Windsor and Sarnia," Bell said. 

For those wanting to learn a shanty or two and get in on the social media activity, Bell recommended Bully in the Alley and It's Me for the Inland Lakes.

"I love the way it's happening on Tik Tok," Bell said, "which I haven't tried, because, let's be frank; I'm an old guy."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now