The rise of the Sea Shanty: New voices on the high seas

Billy Rough 28 April 2021

It’s a centuries-old song tradition, almost 200 years in the making, and has taken social media by storm. We look at three exciting new voices and the rise of the sea shanty

Originating on commercial sailing vessels in the early 1800s, the shanty was a call-and-response song which encouraged co-ordination during work tasks. Now, with the success of acapella groups such as The Longest Johns and singers such as UK No 1 hit and TikTok #SeaShanties king Nathan Evans, the tradition is riding high on a, well, wave.

In many ways, Stan Hugill kickstarted the tradition’s popularity when he published his series of books and recordings in the 1950s and 60s. More recently, groups such as The Fisherman’s Friends and singers such as Seth Lakeman have embraced the tradition. In the last few years other voices have emerged; but what is it that draws performers to a song tradition nearly two centuries old?

The lure of the shanty

Silver Darlings shanty group 

For Laura Tanner from Essex-based all-girl shanty group The Silver Darlings the appeal is in the performance: “Shanties have an effect on any audience. Everybody will stop and listen to a sea shanty and anybody can join in, they were designed so that anybody could sing it. Even if you haven't got a musical bone in your body, you will end up joining in. I love that, it's very inclusive”.

"Even if you haven't got a musical bone in your body, you will end up joining in"

“It's something about the simplicity,” agrees Sally Gall from Whitby based all-female shanty crew the She Shanties, “I really like that shanties are international. Crews were made up from everywhere, so no one owns these traditions. Shanties are very open to everyone and very welcoming. It makes it a very fluid, very open tradition, which is really exciting. It's a wonderful feeling. It's a lovely thing when you hear all those voices raising up together.”

AJ Wright    

Across the Atlantic, AJ Wright regularly performs at the legendary Mystic Seaport, the home of nautical history and song in the US. In their role of shantyman, the soloist who directed the song, AJ is well aware of the historic significance of the tradition. “Do whatever you're going to do with the song, but make sure you know why you're doing it. Know the reason that it is the way it is. A lot of them are hidden records of history. I think that's the most important thing, the persistent historical connection to the people that have been doing this work and what their lives were, that's what makes sea music, I guess, for me, different.”

The challenge of sea songs

Traditionally the songs belonged to male voices, the jolly jack tars who crewed the vessels, this has presented some challenges for female singers. As Laura says: “Some of the guys have really deep bass tones, they resonate so beautifully. We’re trying to recreate that with our voices in their higher register, and I think that works quite nicely. We also put a lot of harmony into our singing and sea shanties wouldn't have been sung with any harmony. I think we try and make it a little bit more invigorating and give it a bit more gusto and sing with a bit more energy. The only challenge is, if you're singing at a sea shanties festival, quite often there's a big sing at the end and the crews come together and they try and sing something collaboratively. Often that's set in a register that would be suitable for the guys. So, we usually end up harmonising, we've learned to do that very quickly.”

Old favourites

With such a huge selection of songs to play with what are the songs that draw performers back and get audiences going? For AJ it’s “Essequibo River: “It's one of my go-tos. I love ‘Paddy on the Railway’, it's really easy to roar out.” For Laura it’s the old classic “Haul Away, Joe”: “I love that song. It was one of the first ones that we learned”, whilst “Old Moke has become a favourite for Sally: “And I really love ‘Hog Eye Man’. I really enjoy ‘Nelson's Blood’, which has a lot of audience participation, you get such a sense of joy and participation and collaboration from that”. As AJ adds, “The best shanty for the task is the one that works!”

An enduring tradition

Clearly, TikTok has a lot to answer for, but in the fickle world of social media what’s the future for this salty old song tradition? Thankfully, it looks like the songs are not leaving port anytime soon. Having persevered for nearly 200 years there is still plenty of life in these old sea songs yet.

"There is still plenty of life in these old sea songs yet"

“If you'd asked me five years ago,” says Laura, “would I have a website dedicated to an all-female shanty group and would I be performing internationally, I’d have laughed at you! I think it is inspiring for a lot of people to suddenly go, ‘Actually, no, I can do this’. It's lovely. It's a brilliant journey.”

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