FIU@Home: Discover sea shanties

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Few things have become as ubiquitous during this pandemic era as TikTok. Allowing people to make, share and riff off of short videos, often set to music, use of this platform surged in the last year as people worldwide stuck in isolation sought new ways to create and connect with each other.

During periods of ongoing uncertainty – whether global health disruptions, social cultural upheavals or increasing environmental disasters – finding ways to support each other and move forward is key. 

It’s allowed for communities to sprout up around things serious #learnontiktok, silly #tellmewithouttellingme and occasionally strange #rentfree. In the early months of 2021, #Shantytok took the internet by storm after Nathan Evans, a Scottish postman, shared a video of his rendition of a sea shanty called “Wellerman”.

Pirate Ship

Sea shanties are a specific kind of work song popularized during the “great age of sail” around the 19thcentury on merchant and whaling vessels. These songs were a way of coordinating the incredible amount of heavy physical labor it took to run a sailing ship. 

Whether it’s the opening call “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” from the cartoon “SpongeBob, SquarePants” or the work song “Po’ Lazarus” in the first scene of the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” the acapella call and response format of shanties are tightly woven into popular culture.

A practical tool to get everyone moving in the same way at the same time. “One song was as good as ten men,” said Adrian Salgado, a graduate student in the English department.

Salgado studies sea shanties and what they can tell us about the people who sang them. He argues that to sailors, shanties were a collaborative tool, a means for them to connect with each other in order to have the will to labor.

The lyrical style of many shanties, especially American shanties, were appropriated from the black southern and Caribbean slaves, workers and sailors. Sea shanties also share a lot of characteristics with Irish, Scottish and English folk melodies. 

Historically and biologically, singing brings people together. It activates neurotransmitters in the brain and releases hormones that increase bonding. 

People have used songs to share information and foster collaboration to establish the communities needed to accomplish great things.

In addition to Evans getting a record deal and an already chart topping “Wellerman” single, there is an entire community that has sprung up and branched out from the original video – adding their own voices, simply and elaborately. The results went viral with other shanties and folk songs quickly posted by various groupsof people.

Because it was never sung to coordinate work and does not have a call and response format, “Wellerman” is technically not a sea shanty. It’s a maritime folk song, also known as “Forecastle Shanties” or “Forebitters,” sung about and on the sea, but not as way to synchronize labor. These songs were still an important part of maritime culture and sailors’ lives.

You don’t even have to be particularly musically inclined for singing a shanty to feel satisfying. Salgado shares singing together means, “The voices are elevated and united, so it sounds good. It’s a way for people to have this emotional connection through singing, which is what a shanty also does.” 

“Wellerman” offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of whaling. Whaling was big business with oil used to make every day staples like lamps, candles, soaps and even food. A single barrel could go for upwards of $150,000 by today’s standards and whale bones were used in luxury items like brushes, umbrellas and corsets.

Though profitable, the industry was cruel and exploitive to the environment, native peoples and the workers. In the chorus, the narrator longs for the supply ship to come and deliver sugar, tea and rum because these were often the only pay sailors would get. They longed to take their leave and go to a home they left for years at a time.

There are still places where whaling isn’t an antiquated notion. While scientists are working to change that, there’s a lot that needs to be done everywhere to work together to preserve the resources we need to survive.

While #Shantytok has brought people together across continents to collaborate musically, we invite you to join another global network rowing in the same direction, this time for conservation.

TikTok isn’t the only social media platform that relies on the momentum of connecting people. Join the 2021 City Nature Challenge on another platform – iNaturalist – and help document biodiversity in your backyard. Why? Our planet is changing and we need eyes working together everywhere if we are to understand and adapt as a community.

There’s so much waiting to be found right outside the back door. Whether in the yard or around the neighborhood, go on an expedition to complete missions grounded in the science that exists all around. Follow FIU@Home on CASE News for more backyard science.