The Delights of Sea-Chantey TikTok

In late December, Nathan Evans, a twenty-six year old singer from Scotland, posted a TikTok of himself performing a multi-part sea chantey titled “The Scotsman.” Evans sang the piece a capella, in a rich, trembling baritone, while pounding his fists and clapping his hands. “The Scotsman” nails the essential gist—Girls! Booze! Travails!—of the sea chantey, a style of traditional folk song that, historically, was sung in unison by sailors, either to pass the time or synchronize their labor. “The Scotsman” has since racked up 2.7 million views (and counting). Evans posted another chantey performance a few days later, this time of “The Wellerman,” a piece more than a century old that likely originated with the small-boat whalers of New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth-century (a Wellerman was an employee of the Weller Brothers, which operated a whaling station on Otago Harbor, and paid its fishermen with “sugar and tea and rum”). The video presently has 4.1 million views, and has inspired imitations, remixes, homages, and the recording of ever more chanteys. According to Google Trends, “sea shanties” has been searched more now than at any other time in Google’s history. “I don’t really know what happened,” Evans told CNET.

It feels worth pointing out (particularly if you are accustomed to a more sly and mocking youth culture) that TikTok’s sudden embrace of the chantey is not ironic, exactly. In one especially popular reaction video, two young men drive while “The Wellerman” plays. The guy on the left knows all the words, and is singing along; soon, the guy on the right is doing it, too. “Now we lit,” a caption reads. There appears to be genuine pleasure on both of their faces.

It seems possible that after nearly a year of solitude and collective self-banishment, and of crushing restrictions on travel and adventure, the chantey might be providing a brief glimpse into a different, more exciting way of life, a world of sea air and pirates and grog, of many people singing in unison, of being free to boldly take off for what Melville called the “true places,” the uncorrupted vistas that can’t be located on any map. But it’s also not unusual for something to gain purchase on TikTok simply because it is unexpected. TikTok runs on an engine of chaos and unpredictability; users of the app are not expected to make logical sense of its offerings. Instead, TikTok is a narrative-free zone, which means it can work as a kind of psychic balm if you are prone to exhausting yourself by scouring art or media for meaning. On TikTok, there is no meaning beyond what is visceral and immediate. For me, at least, that can sometimes feel nice. As my colleague Jia Tolentino wrote back in 2019, “I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason.”

I should admit that, even prior to the rebirth of sea chanteys as a meme, I have spent many hours listening to them earnestly—if you are at all interested in American vernacular music of the prewar era, it is not an especially long walk from Delta blues to work songs of all stripes (the field hollers, “arwhoolies,” and prison songs of enslaved Black people; the hundreds if not thousands of folk songs about mining, logging, or working on the railroad). Although we tend to associate chanteys with nineteenth-century European whaling voyages, they existed in America in the twentieth century, too. (The Library of Congress and Smithsonian Folkways are excellent places to start if you’re remotely curious about the chantey tradition in the U.S..) I first found my way into the form via the Menhaden Chanteymen of Carteret County, North Carolina, a group of retired menhaden fishermen who, in the late nineteen-eighties, began publicly performing the chanteys they once used to rhythmically haul fish out of the sea in and around Beaufort, North Carolina.

The Menhaden Chanteymen’s repertoire has elements of call-and-response gospel (and, in particular, of sacred-harp singing, a style that originated in New England, but has roots in eighteenth-century Anglican parish music), but it also feels distinct to its time, place, and circumstance. Menhaden are a silvery forage fish, constitutionally similar to herring, but less palatable; they spawn year-round in the coastal waters of the North Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to central Florida. Though menhaden fishing has since been mechanized (and, in some regions, restricted or eradicated entirely for environmental reasons), the fish was once widely processed for use in fertilizers, as animal feed, in fish oil supplements, or as bait for catching blue crab and lobster. Life is not easy for the menhaden: besides fishing trawlers, they are also pursued by striped bass, dolphins, sharks, bluefish, herons, gulls, ospreys, and pelicans. The nineteenth-century ichthyologist George Brown Goode once described menhaden as inherently doomed, “swarming our waters in countless myriads, swimming in closely-packed, unwieldy masses, helpless as flocks of sheep, close to the surface and at the mercy of any enemy, destitute of means of defense or offense, their mission is unmistakably to be eaten.”

Menhaden were collected along the Atlantic coast by predominantly Black crews, who dragged large nets called purse seines through the sea. Often, the men used song to coördinate the hauling in of their seines, an elaborate and precise process outlined in crisp, addictive detail in John Frye’s remarkable “The Men All Singing,” easily the “Moby-Dick” of menhaden lore. “At first the net came up yard by yard. The men’s fingers clawed into the mesh. Their shoulder and back muscles flexed. The men leaned back, their feet at first solid against the white oak ribs of the purse boat, then somehow finding footing amid the folds of the net,” Frye writes.

It was the chanteyman’s job to draw upon a storehouse of rhythmic couplets that might inspire the men to keep pulling in unison. “It soon came to a point where muscle was not enough,” Frye writes. “Another verse, another foot. ‘Each pull they’d sing.’ Their voices, like their muscles, were attuned to everybody else’s.” Between verses, the men would clown on each other, engaging in a brash and chiding repartee that Frye lovingly describes as “noisy obscene chatter… like a flock of geese quarreling over corn.” Though many of these chanties have since been transcribed (far fewer have been recorded), one gets the sense that the vibe on the boat was too dynamic and boisterous to be properly represented on the page:

Chanteyman: I left my baby standin’ in the back door cryin’, Honey, don’t go!
Fishermen: Lawd, Lawd, don’t go! (Shouting and chatter)
Chanteyman: I’d go home but ain’t got no money!
Fishermen: (drawing words out) Lawd, Lawd, ain’t got no money! (Shouting and chatter)
Chanteyman: To pay my way!
Fishermen: Lawd. Lawd, to pa-ay my wa-ay! (Shouting and chatter).

Frye suggests that the menhaden chanteys originated in North Carolina, and later inspired regional variations. He quotes Charles E. Williams, a fisherman aboard the Stephen J. McKeever in 1929: “The chanteys moved up the Chesapeake Bay and on north,” Williams said. “Off Delaware they had their own. Sometimes after a hard day when we sang a lot, I couldn’t talk at night.” It’s treacherous, of course, to romanticize labor—particularly labor that was often backbreaking, segregated, and poorly paid. But there is, nonetheless, real beauty in the chanteymen’s heavy, rhythmic singing, in the way the crew briefly blurred together, briefly becoming a single body. In a moment where we are looking for escape and communion wherever we can find it, #shanteytok, as it has come to be called, feels like a safe and welcome portal to anywhere but here.

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