How singing sea shanties can help you weather the pandemic
Centuries-old songs, popular again online, are meant to help with drudgery and pain
Frankline Ozowulu made it back to his family home in Houston, Texas, recently with a song stuck in his head. It was the same song that many who'd spent a bit too much time online were listening to and joining in with: the 19th century sea shanty, alternatively referred to as Soon May The Wellerman Come, The Wellerman or just Wellerman.
It had spent weeks being remixed, reshared and added to on TikTok. But Frankline's brother, Promise, didn't know that. And when he got in the car with Frankline blasting and singing along to the chant, he took out his phone to complain about it on TikTok.
"I was going to roast him, like: 'This boy playing some weird music,'" Promise told CBC News.
Instead, Promise's video follows the same progression of many who listen to Wellerman: confusion, curiosity, begrudging acceptance and then a full-throated sing-along.
"Literally, the series of events of the video were my reaction," he said.
His video racked up over five million views in only five days, and helped the chant explode in popularity elsewhere, when it was shared on Twitter and YouTube. It's just one example of hundreds of videos, spawned by centuries-old shanties, that have recently caught fire on TikTok and other social media.
WATCH | The Wellerman TikTok stars talk about their viral hit:
They are another example of something old-fashioned — drive-in movie theatres, bread baking, tie-dye, jigsaw puzzles — that have helped people deal with isolation during the pandemic. But there could be a reason why shanties, specifically, have caught on and might have more staying power than a typical fad.
"Shanties were the original viral event," said Séan McCann, co-founder of the shanty-inspired band Great Big Sea and self-described "shantyman."
"They traveled across the world relatively quickly on sailing ships, and that's why they exist everywhere in the world."
Not for entertainment
Shanties have been around since at least the 1600s. They originally helped sailors work in unison, McCann says, and their popularity soared during times of hardship. That, he says, makes them perfect for getting through quarantine, isolation and a pandemic.
Sailors "were at the mercy of the sea," he said, and, like those of us caught in the pandemic, "had very little control over their fate."
Tom Power, host of CBC Radio's q, adds that, historically, shanties were not meant for entertainment. "They weren't meant for you to listen to and smile. They were meant so that you could time hauling up a trap."
So-called "halyard shanties" like Wellerman and the popular Blow The Man Down follow a verse-chorus pattern meant to help with long, hard work. Sailors would work to a simple rhythm during the verse and rest as the "shantyman," or song leader, led the chorus. It helped distract them from painful labour and generally tough experiences, Power said, not unlike the painful experiences we're going through now.
"It's functional music right now," Power said. "Instead of lifting a rope all at the same time off a barge, we're trying to get through this pandemic together. And that is that is the function of this music right now."
Leigh Cowart, author of the upcoming book Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose agrees. She says one way humans have evolved to connect and deal with pain is behavioural synchrony, the act of physically keeping time with others.
She points to a study that suggests just imagining walking in rhythm can increase feelings of intimacy between romantic partners, and another that found rowers increase their pain tolerance by moving in sync.
"It seems really reasonable that seeing [people] collaborating digitally in this way … and even just witnessing this kind of a collaboration and maybe singing along at home, would give you that feeling of behavioural synchrony that feels so good to us," Cowart said.
WATCH | Power on why sea shanties are popular:
Shanties have had other moments in the pop-cultural spotlight. They were included in the 2013 pirate-themed video game Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, the band the Decemberists gained fame in the early 2000s with songs like Shanty for the Arethusa and The Mariner's Revenge Song, and even the 2020 film Blow The Man Down used the chant of the same name as a significant plot point.
But the collaboration encouraged by TikTok might help prolong their popularity this time, McCann says. The app encourages users to put their own spin on popular videos so, he says, shanties are finally in an arena where they can thrive once more.
"A song is never more powerful than when it's shared with other people," McCann said. "The younger generation is using the technology to make that happen."
With files from Eli Glasner