Why is everyone singing sea shanties on TikToK?

Jake Helm and Katie Strick
·4-min read
 (TikTok Composite)
(TikTok Composite)

You embraced cottagecore and hauled your family through the Carole Baskin dance, but if you haven’t donned your Shetland sweater and banged your fist on the table to the tune of Irish Rovers’ Drunken Sailor, are you even on TikTok?

You certainly can’t have been for the last month, that’s for sure. According to Google Trends, online searches for nautical tunes are at a record high after one TikToker’s seafaring folksongs washed up a new obsession for lockdown 3.0: singing sea shanties.

Unconvinced? Blame the postman. Specifically, 26-year-old postman Nathan Evans, who unwittingly sparked the trend from his bedroom in Scotland last month and has brought the medieval music to a whole new audience. Everyone from comedians to Elon Musk have since jumped aboard.

From their practical beginnings to Cardi B’s 21st-century remix, here is everything you need to know about TikTok’s latest surprise trend.

What is a sea shanty?

For the landlubbers among us, a quick summary: the word shanty comes from the French verb “chanter” which means to sing. Shanties are a type of collective folk song that were originally sung by merchants, sailors, pirates and fisherman when they were at sea. They were introduced to maintain a crew’s focus when navigating dangerous waters.

The lyrics and melody are intentionally basic so that crew members could easily pick them up and repeat them. They often involve a call and response. One sailor, known as the shantyman, would bellow out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond together.

Their simplicity is perfect for TikTok, allowing users of all abilities from around the world to bellow the lyrics.

How did it start?

Like all TikTok lockdown phenomenons, #ShantyTok started in a bedroom. But surprisingly, we don’t have a fisherman or even a sailor to thank for this particular tale. The creator of Covid-shanty? A 26-year-old postman with a nose-ring and a passion for belting out Scottish folk songs.

The talented singer, Nathan Evans, hadn’t even heard of a sea shanty this time last year, but when one of his followers requested a rendition of Leave Her Johnny, he stumbled across an untapped genre. Evans’ first TikTok sea shanty performance last month, a rendition of The Scotsman, racked up more than two million views, with users adding their own tones to the video and another user named Luke the Voice adding a bass harmony.

Others quickly joined in, donning their knitted jumpers to harmonise with Evans from deep baritones to high melodies. Some even began debuting sea shanty performances of their own.

It wasn’t long before there was a shipload of users adding vocals to Evans’ original performances of The Scotsman and 19th century shanty Wellerman.

And then came the orchestra. Musicians began duetting their performances of the Wellerman. Violins were added to accompany the singers, with videos tagged #seashanty racking up more than 74 million views. #ShantyTok was born.

Who else is taking part?

ShantyTok quickly flooded the internet, with videos tagged #seashanty racking up more than 74 million views and spreading to Twitter and Facebook. Fans have even started dissecting the history of the shanty, a 600-year-old invention by seafarers to tell stories of their lives at sea and aid synchronisation to activities such as rowing and hauling in sails.

Naturally, the 17th-century folk songs have been given a modern twist. Among the 21st-century editions to have emerged on TikTok: dubstep shanties; electric house shanties; and shanty-style remixes of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP and Smash Mouth’s All Star.

Another video of a man reacting to the TikTok trend has gone viral. In the video, the reluctant sea shanty fan has an epiphany, becomes enamoured by the nautical melodies and joins in to bellow a song.

What has the reaction been?

The trend has caused sailor costumes and seafaring Spotify playlists to rocket, but it’s not only mere landlubbers embracing #ShantyTok: SpaceX founder Elon Musk and comedian Amy Miller and are among stars to jump aboard the new trend.

Last night Musk responded to a video of a pirate ship passing a NASA spacecraft, tweeting: “Sea shanty TikTok takes it to a new level with actual pirate ships.”

Users have even tried to draw Joe Biden’s attention to the trend. Comedian Amy Miller tweeted: “@JoeBiden can we please move the vaccine along, people are getting into sea shanties”.

One person tweeted: “I’ve just discovered the sea shanty threads on TikTok and now I am lost in a world of drunken sailors.” Another user said: “This is my lockdown earworm but such an enjoyable one.”

The trend has also been praised for uniting users during lockdown. One user tweeted: “Sea shanties are my life. To see them being introduced to others and bring people together like this is amazing.”