Nfld. & Labrador

Shan't be forgotten: Latest TikTok trend is revitalizing traditional seafaring tunes

It's perhaps one of the more unusual trends to emerge from TikTok, the video-sharing app popular largely among teenagers and young adults, but a sudden interest in sea shanties has taken the internet by storm.

Sean McCann and Fergus O'Byrne are no strangers to the shanty

Musician Sean McCann began writing new shanties shortly before the trend ignited on TikTok. (Stephen Andrews)

It's perhaps one of the more unusual trends to emerge from TikTok, the video-sharing app popular largely among teenagers and young adults, but a sudden interest in sea shanties has taken the internet by storm.

Newfoundland musician Séan McCann had taken a break from writing music as he and his wife worked on a new book, but was eager to return to songwriting with a renewed focus on sea shanties. Initially, his kids were less than impressed. 

"I started to write some new shanties and I thought they were cool, and I sang a couple for my kids," said McCann, who began writing new music just before Christmas.

"And I sang it for my kids, who are 15 and 13, and they were like, 'Dad, that's so lame. That's not cool. They're old songs.'"

That attitude changed this week, said McCann, when his son showed him a TikTok video with millions of views, of a sea shanty. 

"All of a sudden, I'm the cool dad again," McCann said. "So now, apparently, I've got to get on TikTok to be super-cool." 

What will we do with a trending sailor

A far cry from the digital age, the traditional sea shanty dates back to the time of tall ships, and are perhaps seen in the popular imagination today as catchy tunes that were sung by sailors at work. Fergus O'Byrne says there's more to it than that. 

Why sea shanties are having a moment on TikTok

The National

2 months ago
The latest social media craze involves an ancient song tradition. TikTokers have discovered the sea shanty. Eli Glasner looks at why it's captivated an enormous global audience. 2:04

The Irish-Canadian folk musician said there are historically three distinct types of sea shanties: a capstan chant, a halyard shanty and one for a short haul. Each of these, said O'Byrne, corresponded to a specific duty. 

"A capstan was like a great big round wheel with spokes coming out of it to haul up the anchor back in those days," he said. 

Something as simple as hauling an anchor could take well over an hour, said O'Byrne, and so the capstan shanty was integral in keeping the work moving.

Musician Fergus O'Byrne says there are historically three distinct types of sea shanties. (Kathryn King/CBC)

"There'd be a whole bunch of men on the shanty on the wheel, walking around and singing," O'Byrne said.

"So a song like General Taylor, for example, was a capstan, sometimes called 'a-stamp-and-go,' and they'd stamp and they'd go and they'd walk around."

Scroll the old chariot along 

While sea shanties originated as practical work songs, sung by sailors who were doing the physically demanding labour needed to keep their vessels moving, most sea captains didn't care what was being sung about so long as the work got done.

While this led to a few X-rated songs, said McCann, shanties like General Taylor were also an opportunity for sailors to voice their opinions. 

Sea shanties are having a moment on TikTok, something Newfoundland musician Séan McCann says is a perfect fit for this time in the pandemic. He tells us why these songs promote togetherness, and could help Canadians to get through the tough work ahead. 11:11

"A lot of them were political too," McCann said. "We used to sing a song called General Taylor that we sang with great joy, and people love to sing along with it. But, the reality is, that song is not about celebration of a man. General Taylor, it's about people wanting to find and kill General Taylor."

Though new to TikTok, McCann, a longtime champion of the traditional sea shanty, said it's an interesting fascination, and he can understand why this new trend has picked up, even if it's just another internet blip.

"They've got strong melodies, they say things that matter and they help people work through difficult times," McCann said.

"And I think that's why they're popular again. I think they have a role to play."

We find out about the Wellerman - the guy who'll bring us sugar and tea and rum - at least according to a sea shanty that's blowing up social media right now. We talk to Fergus O'Byrne and Matthew Byrne to learn all we can about shanties. 12:32

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Conor McCann is a freelance writer and journalist based in St. John's.

With files from The St. John's Morning Show