Author Gerry Smyth on Why Sea Shanties Are Sweeping TikTok

Gerry Smyth discusses his book Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas and ponders the newfound popularity of the art form on social media.

Man holding guitar
Gerry Smyth
Photo by Slinky Media, West Kirby, UK 

If timing is everything, then singer, shanty band leader, and author Gerry Smyth (Music and Sound in the Life and Literature of James Joyce) has it all. The subject of his most recent book, Sailor Song: The Shanties and Ballads of the High Seas (Univ. of Washington), just happens to be the biggest current craze on social media: the beloved sea shanty, which Smyth defines as “a work song developed on vessels…to make more efficient jobs dependent on muscle power.” It was published in the United States last June and its UK publication date was moved from April 2021 to this January due to the sudden, intense online interest in the art form.

The result of years of research, this illustrated book features more than 40 shanties and 10 ballads, complete with their lyrics and history. Designed to be used by performers, the volume brings to life the art form.

Smyth, a professor of English literature at Liverpool John Moores University, developed an interest in maritime melodies after moving to Liverpool 18 years ago. Spending much of his time walking the beaches and enjoying the solitude, he became intrigued with the history of the area and his research led him to books such as Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas. The discovery that many sea shanties “concerned Liverpool [and] had a wonderful connection to this area” led him to delve further into the lyrics and histories. A musician himself, Smyth began performing shanties and formed his own “ad hoc shanty group.” Smyth asserts that “much like Shakespeare, which I teach, shanties are better when actually performed, they are a performative art form.” He went on to record his favorite sailor songs, including the ballad "Cruel," a shanty round, and the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" performed as a shanty, and formed another group at his university. The group was preparing to record even more songs when the current lockdown took effect.

Smyth’s enthusiasm for his subject matter was evident as he spoke to LJ about the historical significance of sea shanties. Sailors, particularly in the mid to late 19th century, developed the call-and-response songs to provide a rhythm for their heavy work, which “required groups doing the same thing at the same time” as they hoisted sails and pumped water from the ships. The sailors kept their shanties for work time only; according to Smyth, in their leisure time they would sing “nautical ballads instead, focusing on girls, mermaids, the folklore of the time.” Shanties themselves are a surprising combination of global influence and varied styles, a mash-up of slave work songs, ballads, and folky melodies.

book cover of Sailor SongWhy have sea shanties recently struck a chord on social media? Smyth thinks there may be a “parallel between sailors working at sea and the current lockdown…people are lonely and looking for a way to share experiences and communicate.” Scottish postman Nathan Evans recently kicked off the current craze on TikTok by performing the traditional 19th century New Zealand whaling song “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” but Smyth is quick to point out “Wellerman” is not a traditional shanty, as it does not have the “very specific call-and-response format.” The song has led to “Sea Shanty Tok” and created an internet sensation of large groups joining in to sing nautical songs together. The song became such a hit that Evans quit his job and signed a music contract with Universal’s Polydor Records.

Smyth believes the phenomenon proves that “music is intrinsically valuable and necessary, especially in dark times.” While Smyth acknowledges he is not a social media expert, he feels the “shanty form lends itself to the TikTok medium in particular—it is easy to contribute, there is a communal feel to it…you can join in without any musical expertise.”

Sea shanties have been rewritten over the last two centuries to make them more palatable for contemporary audiences. The Victorian collectors who originally gathered the songs for their historical value were “shocked by the lyrics—the sailors were poor, uneducated, rough-around-the-edges,” Smyth reflects. The prudish Victorians watered down the “bawdy language,” but many 21st-century musicians are grappling with the “sexism and racism that were featured so heavily” according to Smyth. One of Smyth’s favorites, “John Kanaka,” which is still being performed today, reflects the original sailors’ racist mindset. Considered a slur today, “Kanaka” was how English-speaking sailors, who refused to learn to pronounce names they considered difficult, referred to their Hawaiian counterparts. Smyth himself has written several original shanties, hoping to make them more inclusive by crafting parts specifically for the women in his group.

Up next for Smyth is a musical “incorporating the shanty technique, and using audience participation” that will be performed with his current and former students and will be ready to go when theater festivals begin again, most likely in 2022. Meanwhile, Smyth is enjoying the sudden popularity of his passion.

Lisa Henry is Director of Operations at the Kirkwood Public Library, MO, and an LJ reviewer.

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