Kamis, 28 Januari 2021

‘Sea Shanty’: Now It’s Yo, Ho, Ho and a TikTok Duet - The Wall Street Journal

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When future historians look back on the early weeks of 2021, they may be left scratching their heads at one seemingly inexplicable cultural trend: the revival of sea shanties.

“Shanties,” traditionally speaking, are songs sung by sailors to the rhythm of their work aboard merchant ships. But nowadays you’ll find them sung by all manner of people on the video-sharing app TikTok, where the nautical tunes have become such an unlikely viral phenomenon that they’ve inspired the hashtag #ShantyTok.

It all started in late December, when a Scottish postal worker named Nathan Evans uploaded his rendition of an old whaling song from New Zealand, “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” Using TikTok’s duet feature, others joined in with Mr. Evans, adding vocals and instrumental accompaniment. Since then, videos with the #seashanty tag have racked up more than three billion views, and online searches for “sea shanties” have skyrocketed, according to Google Trends.

Historically, “shanty” has been spelled as “chanty” or “chantey,” going back to its earliest appearances in print in the mid-19th century. Those spellings suggest a connection to the French word “chanter” meaning “to sing,” or more specifically the imperative form of the verb, “chantez.” The “shanty” spelling may have been influenced by a homonym referring to a crudely built wooden shelter (etymologically unrelated to the other “shanty,” though also with roots in French).

The trend-starter ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come,’ as sticklers have noted, is not actually a sea shanty in the traditional sense.

In an 1856 memoir, the journalist Charles Nordhoff recounted how as a young man he observed work gangs of largely English and Irish sailors in Mobile Bay, off the coast of Alabama, moving cotton bales into the holds of ships. The workers maintained their rhythm with “songs, rough and uncouth”: “The foreman is the chanty-man, who sings the song, the gang only joining in the chorus.”

By 1868, the word could be found in British sources, now spelled as “shanty.” In August of that year, a writer in the London journal Once a Week explained that “shanty” is “a word which those who are curious in etymology will at once be able to connect with ‘chant’,” and is “the name applied to a class of songs but little known to landsfolk.” He goes on to describe shanties as “the songs with which poor Jack seeks to enliven his toil,” using “Jack” as a generic name for a merchant sailor.

From that point on, “chantey” or “chanty” tended to be favored in American usage, while the “shanty” spelling caught on in Britain and the Commonwealth. To this day, many U.S. dictionaries, such as those published by Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, give “chantey” as the primary spelling of the word.

More ‘Word on the Street’

But as the latest online trend illustrates, it is the “shanty” spelling that has become far more common world-wide. That extends to New Zealand, the source of the TikTok favorite “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” Modern singing groups have continued the tradition, like New Zealand’s own Wellington Sea Shanty Society, who recorded their own version of “Wellerman” on the delightfully titled album, “Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties, Vol. 1.”

Yet “Wellerman,” as sticklers have noted, is not actually a sea shanty in the traditional sense, since it was never intended as a work song. Rather, it is more properly classified as a whaling ballad or sea song. It tells the story of New Zealand sailors hunting a whale and awaiting provisions from a supply ship called “the Wellerman” after the Weller Brothers, merchant traders of the 19th century.

While a true shanty like “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” is in a form lending itself to a call and response accompanying work tasks on a ship, “Wellerman,” with its tale of an endless whale hunt, would have been sung for entertainment. Such terminological nuances are of little concern, however, for all those joining in on the song’s rousing chorus on TikTok: “Soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.”

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January 29, 2021 at 05:58AM
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‘Sea Shanty’: Now It’s Yo, Ho, Ho and a TikTok Duet - The Wall Street Journal

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