Modern culture often alights on some random subject or genre with which it is temporarily fascinated, then, with our legendarily short attention spans, discards and moves on. Think back over the last few years: slow eating; man buns; penny farthings; knitting. It tends to work in the same way. A small core group will take the craze seriously, immersing itself unironically, while a larger circle will look on in rapt horror, wondering what is going on and how we’ve got to this.

There was, then, nothing especially surprising that the new obsession is sea shanties. It began in earnest just after Christmas last year. On 27 December, a Scottish postman and musician called Nathan Evans from the not-noticeably-nautical Lanarkshire town of Airdrie recorded a TikTok video of The Wellerman. It is a 19th-century New Zealand song of seafaring types who spy and try to catch a right whale, and Evans performs it creditably, unaccompanied except for his fist beating time. It quickly became a viral sensation and has been viewed millions of times.

In fact, this was not Evans’ first foray into the music of the oceans. He performed a shanty by request in July last year, and, as he told the BBC:

“People were looking forward to more and they were commenting underneath every video after that saying can you sing this one, can you sing that one—it was just requests from people for me to sing them.”

His first song was Leave Her Johnny, which he followed up with The Scotsman, which attracted nearly three million views. The trend had begun.

What made The Wellerman performance extraordinary, and took the sea shanty trend out of Evans’ hands and into the mainstream, was people’s reaction to it: using Tik Tok’s duet function, others have added their own vocals and instruments, layer upon layer on the original performance in a way that would warm George Martin’s heart. The effect is sometimes extraordinary: Evans gained 300,000 followers on the video-sharing service within a month.

This was not wholly without precedent. In 2010, Universal Music signed up an a capella group from Port Isaac in Cornwall called The Fisherman’s Friends. Their repertoire of shanties caught the public imagination: later that year they featured in a documentary about the genre by choirmaster Gareth Malone. The inevitable feature film followed in 2019, starring James Purefoy, Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton.

So, what is a sea shanty? On one level, most people already know. Mention The Drunken Sailor and it’s an obvious aural reference point, male voices, loosely in harmony, with a catchy refrain which is easily followed and imitated. They began as working songs on ships, designed to help sailors coordinate their movements in time to the singing (the derivation of ‘shanty’ is likely ‘chanter’, the French for ‘to sing’).

In the days of sail, when ships required hard manual labour by a large and coordinated crew to keep them in motion, these shanties were a brilliant and inventive way to guide the sailors through tasks such as hauling the anchor or setting sail. Not only easy to learn, they were infinitely variable, and, most importantly of all, getting a group of mariners to act in concert made their labour more economical: if everyone pulls together, the work is that much easier.

A sailor performs a shanty for a curious audience

The shanty has its landlocked analogues too. Think of the songs which were sung in the cotton fields and sugar plantations by African slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. These not only kept the workers in time with each other, setting each task in its place, but were used to ‘communalise’ the situation: working in the fields under harsh supervision was dreadful but a collective outburst of song made it more bearable, making a space, consciously at least, free of brutality.

More than wailing

Many sea shanties were directly connected with the whaling industry. While today we think of it as a barbaric and inexcusable practice carried out only by some pariah nations like Japan and Norway, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was big business, all along the eastern seaboard of America and in much of western Europe, from Norway down to the Basque country. The first evidence of whaling may date from as long ago as 6,000 BC in Korea, but the demand for whale oil as fuel for lamps grew enormously until New England settlements like Nantucket and New Bedford were international centres for the industry. New Bedford, the departure point for Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, was memorialised as ‘the city that lit the world’. Though whaling has not stood the temper of time, the songs – for now – live on.

In the 19th century there was a whole industry in maritime curiosities

Yet, random though the craze for sea shanties might be, there is something appealing about the genre. Perhaps it is the close harmonies, often unaccompanied: it is a heart of stone which is not moved even slightly by fellow human voices, and when they work in concert they are powerful and evocative. The same thread draws some to folk music, especially from the various parts of the British Isles, whether Irish, Scottish or English, or, famously, the Welsh masses singing at rugby matches.

Capstan Shanty-Chor Bremen, a modern shanty-singing group

It may be that something atavistic is stirred in us which recalls the very roots of communal music, especially church music. Christians have worshipped to the sound of chanting for many hundreds of years; the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos even issued an album of Gregorian chant, which reached number three in the Billboard charts in the mid-1990s. So the appeal is an enduring one.

Perhaps, though, it has been more of a technological craze, TikTok providing the ability of viewers around the world to add their own efforts to those of a West of Scotland postman, to participate in something communal and interactive. It may be no coincidence that the sea shanty has sprung to prominence in a time of pandemic, a time of isolation, loneliness and longing for companionship. This is something that, in a strange way, we can all do together.

The likelihood is that this genre will have passed us by again by summer, and there will be a new craze. But for the moment, why not revel in it? If close harmonies are to your taste, savour the sea shanty, which tells us of our history, our industry, our identity. After all, “twitter” used to be a thick membrane which ran through the head case of a sperm whale. Think about that next time you log on to social media.

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.