By Jonathon Van Maren
If someone told me a couple of months ago that there would be a TikTok trend that I’d be on board with, I would have laughed in their face. Then, earlier this year, the sea shanty craze hit—and suddenly a generally trashy social media platform was pushing music of genuine cultural value into the mainstream, spawning thousands of renditions, instrumental accompaniments, and the occasional electronic vandalization.
For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, sea shanties are traditional folk songs that were once the common language of whalers, sailors, and other seagoing men. The origins of such songs stretch too far back to trace. Men have sung while they worked for thousands of years – think only of the drums beating out time for the slave oarsmen of ancient galleys, or the ominous voices of Viking raiders haunting the shoreline mists.
One of the shanties making the rounds across the interwebz, “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” is a New Zealand whaling tune from the 1860s; another, “Leave Her Johnny,” was first written down in 1917, but was sung during the last duties before disembarking from a voyage.
In this frenetic age of passive consumption, the tradition of men singing together is increasingly rare. It is true that there are choirs and other men’s groups, but singing together is no longer part of the rhythm of daily life as it once was, and only a tiny minority of men are part of such groups.
Meanwhile, many once great genres have not evolved so much as metastasized—country music has long since turned from campfire and folk songs to bro-pop with a fixation on sex and nightclubs, with the token pickup truck tossed in as a nod to tradition. Pop music, which pours from speakers in every mall, store, and restaurant has definitively conquered—to the detriment of traditional genres.
The tyranny of the present
Sir Roger Scruton observed in his magnificent essay on the subject that pop music has become a globalizing force, leveling the boundaries between cultures and creating a homogenous music industry that is of nowhere and is rooted in nothing. While pop, like every genre, borrows (or cannibalizes) from its predecessors, it is also a distinct break from music that emanated from a time and place and the people who produced it.