(CNN) – It is foolish to investigate why some things go viral on the internet, and in doing so you risk ignoring the beauty of the simplest answer: you just do it. Nothing makes sense. Stay tuned.
At least that’s the easiest way to tell when “The Wellerman,” a 19th century whaling song, has been swirling around in your head for a week in a row.
The brisk tune of sugar, tea and rum is at the center of a very cool, well executed trend on TikTok started by Scottish musician Nathan Evans. His version of the song, previously brought to modern popularity by the group The Longest Johns, has received nearly 5 million views using the TikTok video sharing app.
“I think that’s because everyone feels alone and at home during this pandemic and everyone has a sense of unity and friendship,” Evans, the 26-year-old singer from Airdrie, Scotland, told CNN.
“And shanties are great because they bring a lot of people together and anyone can join. You don’t even have to be able to sing to join a sea shanty!”
Since Evans released his song on TikTok in late December, other musicians have used the app’s Duet feature to add their own voices and instruments to the mix, creating a harmonious kaleidoscope of interpretations that have gained their own popularity. Other Sea Shanties have also started (there are some differences in the definition of these marine songs, but we’ll just stick to shanties for now). Everyone had a good time.
Then it got weird. TikTok users have started creating dubstep shanties. Smash Mouth’s 1999 “All Star”, already a stand-alone meme, was treated with shanty. Awareness of this new nautical trend was broadcast on Twitter and other social media platforms. “The Wellerman” rose to the Spotify charts.
For some reason, Sea Shanties hit a nerve. And yes, you could call it another internet curiosity. But there must be something more here, right? Why else would people say things like “2021 is the year of sea shanties” or post memes about how “The Wellerman” became part of the soundtrack of our current state of acute global and political crisis?
“I can’t tell if the whole shanty is the perfect healthy distraction from the horrors of life in 2021 or the last nail in the coffin of my psyche,” said Blink 182 front man Mark Hoppus on Twitter.
It’s true, the songs are pretty catchy, and that’s by design. Shanties are a type of work song passed around by workers who are often underpaid and overworked to ease the monotony of their jobs.
Monotony and economic uncertainty? In our 2021? Maybe it’s not so much a stretch after all.
This shanty moment is also another example of the TikTok cultural spectrum. The video sharing app regularly catapults meme music into top bangers and already transforms big hits like Cardi B’s “WAP” into important cultural moments. (And yes, there are now Sea Shanty versions of “WAP”.) Here, of all things, a funny joke about a “Ratatouille” musical can turn into a real event and music from the past, whether it is Fleetwood Macs “Dreams” or a nautical song from the 19th century that can be instantly remixed and reborn.
And all of this happens because one person sees what another has done and decides to join in. In fact, Evans says this was his favorite part of watching the trend grow.
“So many people took part, and the happiness and joy it brought so many other people is absolutely incredible,” he says.
This type of exchange is literally the foundation of folk traditions, and one of the reasons why seaman’s songs and music of everyday people are kept alive through history and across cultures.
Was this exactly the right time when people, isolated and restless, longing for freedom from political upheaval and existential worries, decided to reach across the oceans and indulge in a little sailor obsession?
Could be. Or maybe it shouldn’t make sense and we should just roll with it.
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