The simple reason men (and women) should sing old songs

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.

Writes Scruton:

[The electric guitar] is a machine, which distorts and amplifies the sound, lifting it out of the realm of human noises. If a machine could sing, it would sound like an electric guitar. Techno-music simply is the voice of the machine, which has finally triumphed over the human utterance and cancelled its lyrical meaning. In such music we encounter the background noise of modern life, but suddenly projected into the foreground, so as to fill all the auditory space. However much you listen to this music, you will never hear it, as you hear the voice that addresses you from soul to soul; not even when it sounds so loudly that you can hear nothing else. You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the void. (A telling example is the second mix of ‘I Wanne Be a Hippy’ by Technohead, in which you hear a little human voice trapped somewhere inside, its unmeaning cry churned over and over by the unstoppable machine.)

In short, Scruton says, much of modern music traps us in the tyranny of the present. It doesn’t connect us to our ancestors or those who went on before us. We don’t hope that our kids will listen to the current Top 40 trash long after us.

Civilization, to paraphrase Burke, is a compact between the dead, the living, and the unborn. So it is too with our songs. There is something primitively powerful about singing the same songs your grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfathers sang, whether it be Psalms in church, hymns at home, or folk songs depicting national heroes or historic triumphs or tragedies.

Song as the root of culture

A couple of years ago I was in Ireland with a few colleagues working on a campaign, and after a long night of work we ducked into a pub for a bite to eat. An old fellow sat at the bar with a pint, percolating peacefully, and as we awaited our food, he began to sing an old Irish folk song. Another gravelly voice from an elderly gentleman in the corner joined his; then another, and within a minute, everyone was singing.

A room full of strangers all knew the words to a song about a historic event that meant something to them all—that, I thought as I listened, is what having a culture looks like. I don’t think that there is a single song besides the national anthem that could produce the same result in Canada, because we do not have a shared culture and we do not have shared songs—at least, none that have survived in common usage into the present.

The man who most successfully attempted to revive Canada’s musical folk heritage is probably Stan Rogers, who died tragically young in a fire on an Air Canada plane in 1983.  He was a singer of shanties and a songwriter who combined a Celtic feel, maritime themes, and uniquely Canadian verses. His magnificent ode to the early explorers “Northwest Passage” was once referred to by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. When I met Stan’s brother Garnet, who toured with him as both a fiddler and a singer, he informed me that despite the current popularity of Stan’s work, the last show he’d played—in Vancouver—had been attended by only three people.

That might be true, but there are still plenty of folks who love this sort of music.

During early winter mornings setting up pro-life displays on campus at the University of Calgary, when the grass was glazed with frost and our breath came in puffs of steam, someone would invariably bellow out the first few lines from inside the truck we were unloading: Westward from the Davis Strait ‘tis there ‘twas said to lie! Someone would respond from somewhere on the quad: The sea route to the Orient for which so many died; Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones–And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.

And then, everyone would roar the chorus, and the cold would be banished:

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage!
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

Men: Sing together

Nothing makes work fly like music. Heading onto campuses to set up pro-life displays in the U.S., we’d often sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was incredibly powerful earlier this year at the Chicago funeral of “godfather of the pro-life movement”, Joe Scheidler, to hear the Battle Hymn sung as his coffin was borne from the cathedral by his sons.

The veteran Alberta journalist Ted Byfield, who spearheaded schools for boys over fifty years ago, told me that singing together was an essential bonding experience that all remember well into manhood. Welsh hymns like “The Lord’s My Shepherd”; German hymns like “Fairest Lord Jesus”; Irish hymns like “Be Thou My Vision”; they were hymns of battle and conquering, with first lines like “The Son of God goes forth to war” and “A safe stronghold our God is still” and “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

And there was the school’s anthem, chosen for the frequent thousand-mile canoe treks through the Canadian wilderness, “Today My Sail I Lift”:

I feel the winds of God today;
today my sail I lift,
though heavy oft with drenching spray
and torn with many a rift;
if hope but light the water’s crest,
and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at his behest,
and brave another cruise.

Songs like these—so unlike the effeminate worship songs favoured by many churches today—echoed around campfires and captured the hearts of boys and men. As they sang on the water or under a whirling canopy of northern stars, Ted recalled, the music arched over the years, joining them with those who had gone before and those who would, unless the songs were forgotten, sing them in ages hence. The “praise and worship” industry of today creates pablum uniquely unsuited for such occasions and, as Scruton once noted of similar stuff, it often rejects “melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song.”

All of this is to say that the practice of men singing to together is one that is long overdue for a revival. There is an unbelievably rich and varied canon waiting to be discovered, from songs of heroism and adventure to psalms and hymns of exquisite spiritual richness. For thousands of years, the roar of men’s voices has echoed across the deep, through virgin forests, from church pews, on front porches and around backyard campfires. It is all still there, waiting to be rediscovered.

“When I hear music, I fear no danger,” Henry David Thoreau once said. “I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest of times, and to the latest.” And so it is.

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