People Are Singing Sea Shanties to Keep Their Heads Above Water

Depressing labor conditions are the reason why work songs like "Wellerman" exist, but right now we can't sing them together.
January 14, 2021, 7:28pm
The main characters of cartoon Spongebob Squarepants facing down the ghostly Red Baron on his pirate ship.
Image Source: Spongebob Squarepants/Nickelodeon

As we turn the corner into what may be the end of our voyage through a global pandemic, the internet has become obsessed with sea shanties.

Singing with other people is an incredible bonding activity, especially if you aren't great at singing. Hearing a room full of people's voices combine in a harmony that is at once a single voice and the expression of individuals is a magic trick. Unfortunately, we live in an age where "a room full of people" is both dangerous and, in places under stay-at-home orders, illegal.

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Many have wondered why sea shanties, of all things, are now A Thing, but it’s  not surprising to me that people miss singing together. I have mourned every day since my favorite karaoke bar shut down for good. What's interesting right now is that people have become obsessed with sea shanties specifically, and are using the functionality of TikTok to create those expansive harmonies.

The trend was kicked off by Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postal worker. His rendition of "Wellerman," a New Zealand whaling song, exploded on TikTok in a way that is only possible on the platform. Instead of just sharing and re-sharing the video, people used the "duet" feature of TikTok to harmonize with Evans. When you "duet" with a video, the original video appears on one half of the screen and your new video appears on the other half, allowing you to truly duet with another performer. You can also chain these duets, allowing multiple people to sing along with each other. The end result has the tenor of a dozen drunk men at sea, aching with longing to go home, making up songs to keep from losing their minds.

We are adrift at sea right now, metaphorically. It's been almost an entire year since COVID-19 changed everyone's lives, leading us to live in more solitary ways that can easily lead to sadness. In many US cities, it's incredibly dangerous to do anything outside of your own home, leading to the feeling that while socializing is off the table, working is imperative. Depressing labor conditions are what spurred the creation of work songs like "Wellerman” in the first place, and if we can't sing them together in person, it's not surprising that we are finding ways to sing them with each other online.

There are no work songs about how we work now, isolated and at home, or risking our lives to appease the needs of retail shoppers. But day after day of waking up and parking my ass in an office chair that is absolutely destroying my back has taken a definite toll on my psyche. Before COVID-19, I could let off some steam by hitting up a happy hour with my friends, or going to karaoke, the voices of friends and strangers alike soaring, celebrating the meager gains my labor has brought me. Until I can be shoulder to shoulder with my fellow workers again, I have sea shanties and TikTok.