Admiral Lord Nelson had a habit of writing about his exploits on the high seas to well-connected friends he knew to be indiscreet, thereby ensuring that his heroics became widely-known back home. In one such letter to the Duke of Queensberry, believed to date from 1797, Nelson included the lyrics of an entire shanty written in his honour by his crew. “D---!” the song ended, “His log book’s full of fame already.”
While “Neptune’s favourite son” may, it appears, have inadvertently helped invent the humblebrag, he also clearly recognised the joys and ribald delights of this fascinating art form.
Over 200 years later, the sea shanty is back in the public eye. The genre has suddenly become the fad of the moment on TikTok, where musical videos tagged #seashanty have over 70 million views. It follows the 2019 film Fisherman’s Friends, which celebrated the genre by way of a, ahem, fish-out-of-water drama about Cornish fishermen who become chart-topping pop stars. Likewise, this latest social-media craze is introducing the shanty’s rough melodies and saucy lyrics to a whole new audience.
Shanties, which had their heyday between 1750 and 1870, started as work songs on merchant sailing ships. Led by a “shantyman”, the call-and-response chants were designed to synchronise the crew’s anchor-raising and rope-hauling to – in modern lingo – maximise productivity. Coarse but hearty harmonies were paired with rich language about rolling waves, soggy skies, maidens left behind and dead men’s chests. Whisky and rum – or “Nelson’s blood” as the latter became known, due to the slain Admiral’s body being preserved in a barrel of the stuff on his final voyage home – were never far from people’s minds.
Since then, the shanty’s delights have seduced generation after generation, from the folk revivalists of the 1890s and 1950s through to the Sex Pistols, who recorded a punk version of Friggin’ in the Riggin’ for their 1979 film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.
The Fisherman’s Friends film fuelled shanties’ popularity once more. The increased interest helped revive them as an art form and allowed pub-loving dads to indulge in collective bellowing, even if they couldn’t hold a note. Just as the Military Wives choir led to a boom in female choirs a decade ago, so Fisherman’s Friends gave men permission to holler in rough harmony with a pint of beer in their hands.
The shanty’s influence could also clearly be heard in the UK’s “nu-folk” movement spearheaded by Mumford & Sons and Noah and the Whale a decade ago. It has to be said, though, that the fusing of function and form that characterised the shanty was by this point absent to an almost comical degree. The nu-folk movement took root in a London basement bar called Bosun’s Locker, located under a branch of the West Cornwall Pasty Co on Chelsea’s ever-so-landlocked King’s Road. Quite what the rowdy sea dogs of yore would have made of these waistcoated, banjo-plucking public schoolboys is anyone’s guess. At least they could have nipped upstairs for some familiar food afterwards.
But this does, however, hint at the shanty’s modern resonance. The form’s aesthetics are a hipster’s dream. Beards and chunky-knit sweaters; Breton tops and an analogue world of ropes and wood; allusions to craft and honest graft. It’s wonderfully removed from the horrors of phone screen time and the digital madness of everyday life. A quick internet search reveals that in the hipster-heavy borough of Hackney alone there are two sea shanty choirs.
Indeed, there is something about life on the ocean waves that appeals to all of us. Look at the (former) wild popularity of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, films that have grossed more than $4.5 billion worldwide. And a pair of compilation albums of shanties released in recent years, Rogues Gallery and Son of Rogues Gallery, contain some surprising A-list singers keen to indulge their inner bawd.
Some of the musicians involved were perhaps to be expected. Tom Waits and Keith Richards’s duet of Shenandoah is saltier than an anchovy pretzel, while Shane MacGowan of The Pogues sings Leaving of Liverpool as though he’s lashed to the mast of an East Indies-bound clipper in 1835. But the albums also feature shanties by crooner Bryan Ferry, U2 frontman Bono and New York’s departed bard Lou Reed. All three of them growl and holler with relish. Ferry in particular sounds like he’s rarely set foot on dry land. There is an inner shantyman in all of us.
If you – like me – believe that spontaneous outbreaks of singing would make the world a better place, then this new TikTok revival can only be a good thing. It was as recently as 1970 that the killjoys in the Admiralty stopped dishing out daily tots of rum to Royal Navy sailors. Why not revive this too, and have a proper sing-song? As the famous shanty goes, “A drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm.”