We have Nathan Evanss to thank for this quaint distraction. (Evans is his real name but Evanss is what he uses online.) Like so many of us, the 26-year-old musician, who lives just outside of Glasgow in Airdrie, Scotland, found himself bored during the lockdown. So last March, he joined TikTok in hopes of sharing some of his music.
At the time, his repertoire did not include sea shanties.
For a few months, he played covers of Scottish folk tunes, with the occasional Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel tune thrown in for good measure. The TikToks performed fairly well, usually generating around 10,000 or so views and a smattering of comments. One of them, in mid-July, requested that he perform the classic sea shanty “Leave Her Johnny.”
“I’d never really listened to sea shanties before,” Evanss said. “I went and found it on YouTube, and I thought it was really good.”
On July 13, Evanss belted out the sad tale, “Oh the times were hard and the wages low. Leave her, Johnny, leave her … ” More than a million people rushed to watch the clip, about 990,000 more than his usual videos.
Maybe there was something to this sea shanty business. From thereon out, every time Evanss would post an original composition or cover of Chance the Rapper, requests for him to perform another sea shanty flooded his comments. The people had spoken.
“I didn’t know there was such demand for them, but then you bring them out and everyone goes wild for them,” he said.
On Dec. 23, he posted the first of three TikToks in which he sang “The Scotsman,” which tells the tale of a couple lasses, a drunken Scot and what he might — or might not — be wearing under his kilt.
It racked up 2.7 million views. But his true viral moment came a few days later, when he posted “The Wellerman,” an epic tale of the merchant ships that supplied whalers in the 1800s. Over the next few weeks, it racked up more than 4 million views and officially launched ShantyTok, a corner of TikTok reserved for sea shanties.
The hashtag #seashanty now has more than 72 million views. It includes classic renditions of these ancient songs; people explaining the history of the genre; a trend of turning popular songs like “WAP” into shanties; and at least one club banger “Wellerman” remix.
TikTok’s functionality deserves some credit, as it allows creators to use each other’s sounds. The platform also boasts a “duet” feature in which users can create a video side-by-side with an existing one, allowing different singers to harmonize.
Soon, the trend had migrated to Twitter, where jokesters took their best shots.
Writer John Paul Brammer asked, “can you be a little more sensitive about posting sea shanties on here … some of our husbands chose the sea over us … ”
New Yorker writer Rachel Syme wrote, “sea shanties are incredibly catchy by nature because what else are you gonna do but sing a bop while looking for a single whale for three years.”
Many suggested that Colin Meloy, the frontman of the Decemberists, might feel a little jealous — as his band created sea shanty-adjacent folk-rock tunes for years. While Meloy did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment, he tweeted, “Sea shanties are so 2003.”
Evanss credits the unlikely success in part to his accent, “which people keep commenting on.”
This story has been updated.