IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why is TikTok obsessed with sea shanties? An investigation

Sea shanties, a form of work song that originated in the 19th century, have found new popularity on TikTok.
/ Source: TMRW

There's no denying that the past year has been weird, especially online: TikTok users have gone viral for unexpected food hacks, looking identical to celebrities and asking Miley Cyrus to make major life choices for them.

However, a new viral trend is baffling many: Why, exactly, are TikTok users from all over the world sharing videos of themselves singing sea shanties?

To get to the bottom of the mystery, we reached out to the singers themselves and a sea shanty expert (yes, you read that correctly), who said there's actually a few different reasons why the work songs are suddenly going viral.

What are sea shanties?

James Revell Carr, an associate professor of ethnomusicology in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Kentucky who has published a book about the history of music and performance aboard ships, defined sea shanties as a type of work song that originated in the 19th century. The songs are also known as "sea chanties."

"I think a lot of people assume that sea shanties go back for millennia, but as far as researchers can tell, the sea shanties that we know of today, with a couple of exceptions, come from the 19th century and started in the 1820s and 30s," he explained. "Shanties were songs that had specific rhythms that you would need for different jobs aboard a ship, (like) raising up the sail, pulling up the anchor and pumping water around the ship."

One of the most popular songs on TikTok is "Soon May the Wellerman Come," which dates back to the 19th century and appears to have originated in New Zealand. Known commonly as "Wellerman," many singers have recorded themselves singing the song or dueting it with other users. As of Thursday afternoon, videos tagged with #Wellerman on the platform had a total of 25.2 million views.

"My all time favorite (shanty) has got to be 'Wellerman,' just for the fact that I loved watching it grow and watching everyone duet it," said Nathan Evans, 26, who is one of the most popular TikTok shanty singers.

Why are young adults singing them?

TMRW interviewed three TikTok users whose videos have gone viral, including Evans. Each of them said that they believe there's a few core reasons why the trend, which started circulating online a few months ago, suddenly went viral. (Carr said that sea shanties have always had a following, and have also been featured in video games like Assassin's Creed and movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean," so they've always bene somehow present in pop culture.)

One of the most common theories was that the songs, which are meant to be sung by a crew and do not require any musical training to be sung well, are a way for people to connect amid the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Everyone is feeling alone and stuck at home during this pandemic, and it gives everyone a sense of unity and friendship," said Evans. "Shanties are great because they bring loads of people together and anyone can join in, you don't even need to be able to sing to join in on a sea shanty."

Sam Pope, a TikTok user from Kent, England, said that the focus on "joining in" made the trend especially appealing. Many users have taken advantage of TikTok's "duet" feature to share videos of themselves singing along with popular videos.

"It's group singing, it's community based, it's about people sticking together," Pope, 30, said. "It's about joining in and getting involved ... In general, people are reaching out for connection at the moment. People want to connect with each other and they want to join in, and this is the best music for that because there's no barrier."

Carr agreed with that assessment, drawing a parallel between the isolation of sailors at sea and people stuck at home during the pandemic.

"Crews that sang these songs were isolated with a small group of people, a pod of people, you might say, and this was how they entertained themselves and a way to talk about what they were going through and the hardships they were facing," he said. "So I feel like in this time of quarantine and anxiety about the world, shanties are serving a similar function for us."

Annamaria Christina, a TikTok user from Long Island, New York, who also shares her videos on Instagram, said some of the appeal of the songs might be connected to the sense of adventure that comes when one thinks about ships traveling the world.

"The idea of being a sailor (or) pirate and going out on adventures all over the world is the exact opposite of what so many of us are experiencing during this pandemic," said Christina, 24. "So I think allowing ourselves to imagine that we are the people in the songs has been a great form of escapism."

Carr drew other parallels between the situations of sailors and Internet users: Sailors on ships would have been around the same age as many of the video-makers, and many of the songs touch on topics that would still be relevant to young adults today.

"Sailors in the 19th century were in their late teens and their 20s," he said."They were young people who liked to drink and party. There's something about that that resonates with young people now."

The global and communal aspect of the sing-alongs also helps with their popularity: Carr said that almost every culture in the world has its own version of the sea shanty, and since TikTok is used around the world, people are able to share their own versions of the songs.

"Ships brought people together from lots of different backgrounds and different places, and they could all bond together through music," Carr said. "It was the one thing that they shared, culturally, and I think that's true today. You see people from all over the world really enjoying this music, and so there is something really, really special about that."

CORRECTION (Jan. 23, 2021, 10:59 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled Nathan Evans' last name. It is spelled Evans, not Evanss.