Social media stars sail away with sea shanty record deals

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Martin Powell, from left, Daniel Millar, Tom Cumming, Pete Bowman, Ben Bamford, Cameron Langdon, Will Wragg and James Carroll from the band the Salty Wailers perform a sea shanty on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand. The Salty Wailers started singing together a year ago as an excuse to go for a pint on a weeknight, performing in pubs across Wellington. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)

LONDON – The long forgotten sea shanty has been enjoying a renaissance on social media and is now moving into popular music with two U.K. artists landing record deals, following their online performances.

Scottish postman Nathan Evans and Bristol folk band The Longest Johns signed record deals last week, with Evans even securing a No.1 record in the U.K. for his recording of the New Zealand song “Wellerman,” which he originally performed on TikTok.

For some artists, the sea shanty has long been part of their repertoire. New Zealand band The Salty Wailers started singing together a year ago as an “excuse to go for a pint on a weeknight,” performing in pubs across Wellington.

Group member Ben Bamford said the intention was “to get the entire pub involved with us, so that you can really bring the house down. You want people to be walking past the pub thinking, ‘What the hell is going on in there?’”

He added that none of the group have TikTok, but hearing the music gain traction in the charts and in the news encouraged the band to get back out there and perform their biggest show at the end of January in The Welsh Dragon Bar in Wellington, which he said was “a blast.”

Sea shanties were work songs developed on 19th century sailing vessels. Gerry Smyth, an English professor at Liverpool John Moores University and author of “Sailor Song: The Shanties & Ballads of the High Seas,” points out that chart-topping single “Wellerman” isn’t technically one: Shanties have a call-and-response structure that was used so sailors could sing and work in unison while performing physically demanding tasks.

“When (Evans) is singing the first four lines on his own before everybody joins in on the chorus, the sailors are sitting around, biting their nails and having a fag and so on. That’s not going to work,” Smyth explained.

However, the professor said the song could be adapted for a shanty since it is about “maritime matters” such as whaling.

Whether or not “Wellerman” counts as a shanty, there is no denying it has caused a stir online. Evans’ rendition, posted late December on TikTok, has gotten 10.9 million views to date. Claire Maddocks, a neurologic music therapist, said she thinks sea shanties appeal to people because of the “simplicity of a human voice,” and the repetitive, predictable nature of the song.

“We hear exactly where it is going to go next” so we are drawn in, Maddocks says. “I guess a bit like when you start watching something on Netflix and you kind of start to keep watching because you care about the character. There’s almost that kind of emotional draw to that.”

Nathan Evans’ version of “Wellerman” was remixed by 220 KID and released by Polydor Records/Universal Music. The producer thinks sea shanties are having a modern moment on TikTok and this year because of the feeling of inclusivity promoted by both the format and the app - the duet function allows users to sing along with the artist, having “many voices together.”

Evans adds in the contemporary context of lockdown, with “everyone stuck in the house,” performing “Wellerman” has “uplifted us and kept us going.”

David Robinson of The Longest Johns agrees, saying the trend is about other ways to interact with someone over the internet. People can sing “while waiting for their Uber Eats” added his bandmate Andy Yates. In the past week The Longest Johns — who also recorded a popular YouTube version of “Wellerman” — signed deals with Decca Records and UTA. They have announced a U.K. tour for later this year.

And Professor Smyth says he's fine with people calling “Wellerman” a shanty if they want to.

“If they want to use it, if they’re getting pleasure, if they’re getting joy, that’s absolutely fine. I’m not coming along to rain on anybody’s picnic. In technical terms, I don’t think it’s a shanty, but I’m absolutely fine with people using it that way if they want to” he said.

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Associated Press reporter Nick Perry contributed to this story from Wellington, New Zealand.