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Music

The lyrics of sea shanties are dated but the melodies and rhythms persist

The recent success of a Scottish postman has vindicated my sea shanty recommendation, writes Claire Jackson

The Big Issue’s crystal ball has been remarkably reliable of late. In an earlier instalment of this column, we recommended that sea shanties were just the tonic for these troubled times. A week or so later, Scottish postman Nathan Evans posted a TikTok video of him singing 19th-century whaling song Wellerman, accompanied only by his own hand tapping.

The clip went viral, as others added their own layers to the vocal line. A resonant bass brought out Evans’ own gorgeous gravely tone, while string harmonies and a snare drum sent shivers down spines. One ambitious young musician even arranged a four-part version for bassoon. A piano part appeared – recorded by one Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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Within a few days, thousands were singing ‘Soon may the Wellerman come to bring us sugar and tea and rum’ and record labels were clamouring to sign Evans. The original TikTok clip has reached more than 10 million views and Evans has been a regular fixture on magazine TV shows, including Good Morning America, where he sang a solo via video link. A dance remix of Wellerman by producers 220 Kid and Billen Ted climbed the mast to take the number one spot on the official UK chart.

It’s bizarre to watch the generally enlightened Gen Z singing so enthusiastically about harpooning whales (‘One day when the tonguing is done we’ll take our leave and go’). While the lyrics have dated, the simple melodies and rhythms have not.

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Shanties were primarily work songs; created to help sailors keep in time with arduous tasks on board, as well as cope with the emotional challenges of being away from land and loved ones. There is also an element of protest: many were press-ganged into joining the navy against their will.

Psychologists have highlighted the lift that communal music-making can provide; the TikTok Wellerman mashups made during pandemic isolation are an exemplary example of this. As if the resurgence of sea shanties wasn’t strange enough, one highly enjoyable TikTok video imagines a nightclub in 2022 – presumably some of these poor teens genuinely do have to imagine them as they haven’t had the dubious pleasure of real clubbing yet – where ‘only electro-shanty exists’. Count me in.

Before we go shanty clubbing, there’s more on-screen shanty action: Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival is organising a virtual edition this year (June 19). The event will feature live and pre-recorded performances and competitions, broadcast from Cornwall Channel Studios via Facebook and YouTube. The project will raise money for the RNLI.

The second image in The Big Issue’s all-seeing orb was of London’s new music centre. A couple of issues ago, I wrote that building a new concert hall in the capital at the moment – from private wealth or otherwise – seems highly inappropriate. It turns out that the people who matter think so, too. Just after we went to press, the City of London Corporation announced that the plans for the 2,000-seater hall have been axed due to the impact of Covid-19. The £288m music centre was dubbed the ‘Tate Modern’ of classical music and was intended to include commercial and educational spaces as well as the proposed high-tech main stage.

It seems as though resources will instead be used to improve the Barbican’s concrete complex. I admit that I’m no lover of the Barbican’s brutalist block aesthetic. (Katie Sayer summed up our love-hate relationship with the building when she tweeted “Just wanna be sweaty and crying bc I can’t find the entrance to the Barbican and it’s 19:25” – and attracted over 10,000 likes.) But there’s no point building new stages until we can get performers back on the old ones.

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