Shan't be forgotten: Latest TikTok trend is revitalizing traditional seafaring tunes

·3 min read
Shan't be forgotten: Latest TikTok trend is revitalizing traditional seafaring tunes
Stephen Andrews
Stephen Andrews

It's perhaps one of the more unusual trends to emerge from TikTok, the video-sharing app popular largely among teenagers and young adults, but a sudden interest in sea shanties has taken the internet by storm.

Newfoundland musician Séan McCann had taken a break from writing music as he and his wife worked on a new book, but was eager to return to songwriting with a renewed focus on sea shanties. Initially, his kids were less than impressed.

"I started to write some new shanties and I thought they were cool, and I sang a couple for my kids," said McCann, who began writing new music just before Christmas.

"And I sang it for my kids, who are 15 and 13, and they were like, 'Dad, that's so lame. That's not cool. They're old songs.'"

That attitude changed this week, said McCann, when his son showed him a TikTok video with millions of views, of a sea shanty.

"All of a sudden, I'm the cool dad again," McCann said. "So now, apparently, I've got to get on TikTok to be super-cool."

What will we do with a trending sailor

A far cry from the digital age, the traditional sea shanty dates back to the time of tall ships, and are perhaps seen in the popular imagination today as catchy tunes that were sung by sailors at work. Fergus O'Byrne says there's more to it than that.

The Irish-Canadian folk musician said there are historically three distinct types of sea shanties: a capstan chant, a halyard shanty and one for a short haul. Each of these, said O'Byrne, corresponded to a specific duty.

"A capstan was like a great big round wheel with spokes coming out of it to haul up the anchor back in those days," he said.

Something as simple as hauling an anchor could take well over an hour, said O'Byrne, and so the capstan shanty was integral in keeping the work moving.

Kathryn King/CBC
Kathryn King/CBC

"There'd be a whole bunch of men on the shanty on the wheel, walking around and singing," O'Byrne said.

"So a song like General Taylor, for example, was a capstan, sometimes called 'a-stamp-and-go,' and they'd stamp and they'd go and they'd walk around."

Scroll the old chariot along

While sea shanties originated as practical work songs, sung by sailors who were doing the physically demanding labour needed to keep their vessels moving, most sea captains didn't care what was being sung about so long as the work got done.

While this led to a few X-rated songs, said McCann. Shanties like General Taylor were also an opportunity for sailors to voice their opinions.

"A lot of them were political too," McCann said. "We used to sing a song called General Taylor that we sang with great joy, and people love to sing along with it. But, the reality is, that song is not about celebration of a man. General Taylor, it's about people wanting to find and kill General Taylor."

Though new to TikTok, McCann, a longtime champion of the traditional sea shanty, said it's an interesting fascination, and he can understand why this new trend has picked up, even if it's just another internet blip.

"They've got strong melodies, they say things that matter and they help people work through difficult times," McCann said.

"And I think that's why they're popular again. I think they have a role to play."

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