(Amanda Petrusich’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 1/14. Photo: After nearly a year of solitude and crushing restrictions, chanteys are providing a glimpse into a more exciting way of life, a world of sea air and pirates, of people singing in unison.Source: jonnystewartbass / 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.”