Sea shanties are trending… but what are they?

Image result for whalers clipartSocial media has been awash the last few weeks with the singing and playing of these earwormy (is that even a word?) songs called sea shanties.

 Melodies like The Wellerman and Drunken Sailor have been popping up in videos everywhere. And the trend all began with a postman named Nathan Evans, who started singing the songs in his bedroom in Scotland and posting them to TikTok.

Musicians all over the world have been jumping on board and adding their own parts to Evans’ vocals – even Andrew Lloyd Webber,  turned Evans’ rendition of The Wellerman into a duet with a piano accompaniment.

What is a sea shanty?

Sea shanties are a type of folk song historically sung by fisherman, whalers and merchant sailors to accompany the work they needed to do on board a sailing ship. The theme music to the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants is a great example of a sea shanty, which often uses the ‘call-and-response’, style in the song!

They’re believed to be around 600 years old, and the name itself is thought to derive from the French verb ‘chanter’, meaning ‘to sing’. They often used similar tunes to old Irish and Scottish folk songs and would typically have been sung a cappella – without instrumental accompaniment – across a crowded deck. Such songs were designed to match the rhythm of common jobs aboard a ship such as pulling rigs or mopping the decks; they synchronized the sailors and made their work more bearable / enjoyable.

A deep dive into The Wellerman and its link to NZ’s whaling history

The sea shanty which started this craze – Soon May the Wellerman Come – is thought to have originated in New Zealand and sung on whaling boats in the mid-19th century. The “Wellerman” refers to a supply ship (owned by the Weller Company) which brought supplies such as tea, sugar and rum to the men on the whaling boats. The lyrics describe a whale hunt. The whalers have harpooned the whale but can’t get it on board.

Whalers and sealers were among the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand. The first shore based whaling stations were established in southern New Zealand in the late 1820s.

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Whale pots near the visitor centre on Kāpiti Island. Image: Courtesy Sue Jane

In 1839, the peak year for New Zealand whaling, approximately 200 whaleships were working in New Zealand waters. Kororareka in the Bay of Islands was the biggest whaling port in the southern hemisphere, with 740 ships visiting the port in 1840. The Kāpiti region had six whaling stations dotted around the area. Even Kāpiti Island  had a whaling station on it, as Southern Right Whales would use the channel between the Island and the Kāpiti Coast as they migrated north from Antarctica. Old whale pots used to boil the whale blubber to get the valuable whale oil, are still sitting on the island today.

 

 

White and Black Whale in Water

Why were whales hunted?

Whales were hunted for their oil, baleen and ambergris. The oil was used in lamps and machinery. Baleen hangs inside the whale’s mouth to catch krill and other food, and was used to make corsets (a stiff undergarment worn by women of the time) and whips. Ambergris forms in the whale’s belly and was an ingredient in expensive perfumes.


Online resources for sea shanties, whaling and whales:

Te Ara Encyclopedia – whaling

New Zealand History – Sea Shanties

New Zealand Folk Songs – Sea Shanties 

Department of Conservation – Whales


 Some great seafaring reading:

Moby Dick : or the white whale / McCaughrean, Geraldine
This is an adaptation for children of Herman Melville’s masterpiece. In vivid and compelling language Geraldine McCaughrean recounts the tale of the crazed Captain Ahab pursuing the great white whale, Moby Dick, a creature as vast and dangerous as the sea itself. A crew of whalers sets out in pursuit of a fierce white whale that cost their captain his leg on a previous expedition. (Catalogue)

 

Thor’s tale : endurance and adventure in the Southern Ocean / Marriott, Janice
Eleven-year-old Thor is the lowest of the low at a subantarctic whaling station. As a whaler’s boy, he spends long, hard days loading coal. He should be looking forward to being a harpooner on the whaling boats – but he really wants to be soaring high and free with the albatrosses. Until the day a ghostly ship emerges from the mists. It is Endurance, carrying Shackleton and his intrepid explorers on their voyage of discovery to the Antarctic. Thor has never seen anything like her, and when he is caught up in the expedition’s fight for survival, he must decide where his future lies.  (Catalogue)

 

Sophie Scott goes south / Lester, Alison
Nine-year-old Sophie is going on a month-long voyage to Antarctica, with her dad, the captain of an icebreaker. Sailing the frozen seas round-trip from Australia to Mawson Station in the South Pole, Sophie recounts the adventure of a lifetime in her own words, illustrations, and color photographs. She’ll show us icebergs, penguins, seals, and whales It’s a dangerous journey, but Sophie is well prepared for the thrills and chills that await her on top of the world. (Catalogue)

 

Pirates / Fox, E. T.
For any kid that can’t get enough of pirate facts, DKfindout! Pirates is packed with information, quizzes, fun facts and incredible images of every aspect of pirate life. Discover what pirates ate, what life was like onboard a ship, and the rules by which they led by. Immerse yourself in pirates with DKfindout! (Catalogue)

 

Race to the end of the world / Tait, A. L.
The King is determined to discover what lies beyond the known world, and has promised a handsome prize to the ship’s captain who can bring him a map of the whole globe. To do that, they’ll need mapmakers – and 14-year-old Quinn is shocked to be one of the chosen. While his older brothers long for adventure, Quinn is content with a quiet life on the farm, but when word of his special talent gets out, he has no choice but to pack his bags and join the mismatched crew of slaves and stowaways on board the Libertas. The other competitors will do anything to win, but the greatest danger may come from the strange sea monster hot on their tail or the mysterious uncharted lands for which they are bound. Nobody knows what lies off the edge of the map, but Quinn is about to find out that it’s more than anyone bargained for . . . (Catalogue)

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