in his book Ballads and Marine Songs of Nova Scotia, W. Roy MacKenzie described sea shanties as an “outdated ritual”. That was in 1909. But now the saltwater kind of song is back. Thanks to a lonely Scotsman who sparked a social media meme among young audiences, the shanty ship has arrived.
A year ago, Glasgow-area musician Nathan Evans posted a TikTok video of himself stoically singing the ballad of whaling. Soon the Wellerman will come. It struck a chord with a bored generation locked down during the pandemic. Evans himself told The New York Times that TikTok eased his claustrophobic feeling.
The video was enthusiastically shared, remixed, and duet-sung online, and “ShantyTok” was born. The fictional Trailer Park Boys from Nova Scotia even responded with the similar-sounding parody, The Kittyman Sea Shack:: “Once upon a time there was a cat with a hungry tummy/The name of the cat was Jelly Whiskers”. The viral phenomenon of something so esoteric and long outdated was, of course, drenched in more irony than rum or grog. Or was it?
On merchant marine ships in the 1700s and 1800s, shanties were used as a rhythmic tool to help sailors work in unison. Different types of tasks on board would have different songs attached to them. “But then they started cheering them on with profane lyrics or funny lyrics or lyrics about their captains,” says Jon Cleave, a member of Fisherman’s Friends, folk singers from the coast of England. “The men on the boats sang about common experiences, and singing about them while doing chores would have lifted their spirits.”
So the shacks cheer up and help pass the time. Who else but a society locked down during a seemingly endless pandemic would need an old me ho ho?
And now, with the pandemic abating and the golden age of yachting, shanty towns still lift your spirits – Cleave and the rest of his Cornish seasong specialists arrive on a stage near you. The Fisherman’s Friends formed in 1995 and are signed to Universal Music. Her feel-good life story inspired a 2019 self-titled British drama, which in turn spawned Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, which lands at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theater this weekend for a scheduled seven-week run. The movie sequel Fisherman’s Friends: One and All it was released in Canada last week.
According to Cleave, the group’s fans range from children to retirees, with no age gap in between. The closest most of them have come to marine life may be Red Lobster shrimp. Cleave believes that the shanty’s appeal to landlubbers is based on an oral tradition.
“The songs are accessible,” he says from Port Isaac, population 721. “They have not been written, they have no complexities and anyone can join them. There is a great democracy for them”.
Delving into the sociophysiological drive for shanty towns, Cleave points to camaraderie and a sense of lineage. “There’s a lot of talk about community these days. It’s something that fades a bit, but in smaller venues we manage to stick with it. I think other people can relate to it and want to feel like they’re a part of it.”
Feel like you’re part of it, literally joining in the call and response singing, whether it’s in a pub or a Fisherman’s Friends concert. “Maybe they do it because the words and melodies were things their own ancestors would have sung,” says Cleaves. “There is a feeling of going back in time.”
In fact, the most listened to song from Fisherman’s Friends on Spotify is shanty towna contemporary song written by Bob Watson that despairs of modern ships and laments the loss of the role of the sailor who sings the main line of a sea shanty: “Sing them a song of a world gone wrong, when they had no use for a shanty town. ”
A shantytown renaissance did not ensue in 2006, when well-known artists and actors, including Sting, Bono, and John C. Reilly, contributed tracks for the Rogue’s Gallery: pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys compilation produced by Hal Wilner. A follow-up album featuring bootleg types like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Courtney Love, Keith Richards, Angelica Huston and Johnny Depp was released in 2013.
The shanty oil lamp was long carried in Canada by Newfoundland folk-rockers Great Big Sea, who sold platinum and released nine studio albums before disbanding. Former members Alan Doyle and Sean McCann have thriving solo careers. The best-known local recordings in the genre include Leave her, Johnny, leave her by Stan Rogers and drunken sailor by the Irish Rovers.
And while 2021 has finally made shanty towns popular again, it’s not the first time they’ve gone viral. When working ships sailed around the world, they would stop at ports where crews were changed and sea songs were exposed to new people. “In the same way that TikTok exposed the slums during the pandemic,” says Cleaves. “It would have taken four or five years for a song to go around the world, but eventually they did.”
Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical runs from November 27 to January 15 at the Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto. Information at mirvish.com.