2021 has been called by some “the year of sea shanties”. Somehow, during our pandemic isolation, shanties became a popular trend on Tik Tok, bringing back old stories of pirates, travellers, and the open sea.
While sailor songs are at least as old as the 14th century, sea shanties as we know them did not originate on ships; they draw their roots from African American and Caribbean work songs. These were sung when boat-rowing, working on plantations or unloading docks. These songs often followed a call-and-answer format, with one person leading the other workers. Since workers matched the rhythm of the songs to that of their task, the tempo was often flexible, and the songs had an overall sense of freedom. The work songs eventually found their way across the sea, where they mixed these elements with Irish and Scottish folk songs to eventually become sea shanties. Interestingly, on our side of the Atlantic, flexible tempos and melodic freedom became essential characteristics of jazz.
Sea shanties were sung on merchant boats and used to distract and entertain sailors on voyages that were often long and boring. The rhythm of these songs was also adapted to everyday sailing tasks like hoisting sails, which helped the sailors stay synchronized while working. Most ships had a shantyman, who led the sailors in their chants. The shantyman was a highly valued member of the crew and rewarded with a lightened workload and extra alcohol. This leader would sing the call in most shanties, followed by the crew’s answer.
This simple format can be found in many other styles of music (some religious music, for example). The individual call answered by the strength of the group created a strong sense of community and unity within the singers. Other characteristics of Irish and Scottish folk music became important in shanties: they mostly used the major and pentatonic modes, were often in triplets, and the lyrics often contained barely hidden innuendos.
So why did sea shanties make a comeback in recent months? Many musicians behind this renewed popularity believe that the pandemic has left us feeling lonely and bored, just as sailors may have felt on a long trip. Shanties are designed to bring people together, which we need now more than ever. Additionally, the duet feature on Tik Tok has made it easy for creators to collaborate and create a complete arrangement of old shanties (many of them are available online!) Singing these old songs helped many people in times of isolation, and their message of good times ahead may be appreciated as we enter the winter months.
By Marieke Glorieux-Stryckman