There’s always some tension between our illustrious editor Roman Gokhman and I when it comes to this column.
He, being the King of RIFF, cares about stuff like SEO and reader interest and boring things like that. I, as a shameless music nerd, like to bounce between exposing you, dear reader, to under-appreciated songs from history and talking about the same handful of bands I’m obsessed with over and over. As you might imagine, under-appreciated songs don’t have a great Google ranking, so he periodically implores me to include at least one song anyone other than I have heard of, and I generally respond by not doing that.
Eventually he’s going to hit me with a shovel.
So imagine my surprise when, this week, he suggests I write about sea shanties. Sea shanties! The exact sort of thing I’m always wanting to do a multi-column series about before he explains that if I want someone to actually read it I have to appeal to an audience; literally any audience! But apparently for some reason sea shanties are the new hotness on TikTok, so for once I’d like to give my heartfelt thanks to youths. I’ll never understand you but I appreciate you.
I am absolutely not going to subject you to me singing sea shanties, but I will list five covers and interpretations of sea shanties, because—and I cannot stress this enough—I love covers and interpretations of sea shanties as well as their modern descendants. You’re the real MVP, youths.
Me: What is this sea shanty TikTok thing? People on the internet are so weird.
Me five minutes later: SOOON MAY THE WELLERMAN COME TO BRING US SUGAR AND TEA AND RUM
— Shailin Thomas (@shailinthomas) January 12, 2021
Thunderclash — “Drunken Sailor”
Let’s begin with this, the most famous of the sea shanties.
For those of you who aren’t hip like me and the TikTok youths, this is a sea shanty. You know this. Everyone’s heard this. This is the style. Lots of repetition, lots of call and response. Chorus sung in a group.
Obviously, punk and metal bands love sea shanties. It can be argued that both genres are the natural evolution of the form, best experienced in a group all shouting along together. Granted, punk and metal shows aren’t quite the same as the backbreaking labor of a whaling ship, but if you’ve ever been in a mosh pit you know it feels the same the next day.
The Pogues — “Poor Paddy”
The Pogues covering an old Irish folk song used as a sea shanty seems like an obvious place to go next.
Now that we’ve got the what, let’s go to the why: Sea shanties are songs that were sung on sailing ships to keep time. One person would sing the verse, either standard lyrics or improv, then everyone else would sing along with the chorus while doing their work to the beat. That included stuff like, I don’t know, swabbing decks I guess, or raising sails. I don’t know boat stuff. Whatever you do on a boat.
This one had fairly fixed lyrics because it was a song they knew anyway, but it lent itself to being shantified. A significant percentage of Irish shanties were also Irish drinking songs, because, musically, Ireland is mostly drinking songs. Great country. Great people.
Stan Rogers — “Barrett’s Privateers”
Shanties themselves are old, of course, but covers of them are old, too! This, from 1977, is one of the most famous versions of one of the most well-known examples of the form.
This isn’t really my favorite version, I admit, because I love the cacophony of Celtic punk and pirate metal and this is a standard of those genres, but it is probably my favorite shanty. I do not know why. The lyrical content doesn’t really resonate with me, I don’t really have any especially fond memories of it. I just like it.
If I get shanghaied this is going to be my go-to.
Alestorm — “Keelhauled”[Gokhman note: Not Halestorm? I’m learning all sorts of things!] I’ve mentioned pirate metal a couple times so I should probably include an example.
The TikTok trend is classic sea shanties, which are great, but the style is far from dead. For example, may I direct your attention to Alestorm. They’re still writing and performing them! Only singing them on ships for the music videos, yes, but the core is the same, and bless them for it. They did serve a purpose on those ships, yes, but they never would have stuck around if it wasn’t genuinely good music that scratched a psychological itch.
Flogging Molly — “Drunken Lullabies”
If you’re one of the aforementioned youths who got interested in sea shanties from the TikTok videos: Welcome. The TikTok videos are all extremely well-done but that’s just where it begins. If you dig a bit deeper you’ll learn that it’s not the specific songs, or even the specific genre, but the form itself. Even when you’re alone, a recording can give you a feeling of community, and singing along to one live in a crowd is an experience everyone should have at least once.
This song, for example, is one of my favorite modern examples of the form, and I had a chance to experience it live at the Greek Theater in Berkeley back in 2019. I say “experience” rather than “hear” because it wasn’t just the song; it was the band going nuts on stage, the crowd moshing and jumping around, and thousands of people, myself included, shouting the chorus in unison.
When the plague finally subsides—which it will, I promise—I highly recommend you find a show by a band doing shanty-style music and go to it. That is absolutely my plan, because nothing will make you feel reconnected to society faster after a long, long time away from other people.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.