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Year of the Shanty

As deep as the roots of a people's culture and history diverge and drive their way into the Earth generation after generation, so too does the lyricism of the shanty. Shanties emulate this process and makes history palpable and, thanks to modern technology, available to the listener. Folk music is full of sorrow, joy and the thrills of adventure, commonly in the context of sailing off to distant lands. Folk music penetrates our soul and helps us understand the struggles and triumphs of our forefathers.

Strangely enough, it was thanks to various musicians on TikTok that sea shanties have become popular once again. These musicians are seen uploading videos of themselves singing welcomed songs such as Wellerman and Bones in the Ocean by The Longest Johns and songs by other artists. Such songs have the capacity to send chills down your spine with their pure and visceral lyricism, toe-tapping rhythm and catchy tunes. Combine all these factors and they often make listeners tear up. Many may dismiss TikTok in its totality as a blot on cultural life, and although there is plenty of truth to this observation because there is a fair share of garbage being trickled down to the smaller creators, I maintain there still is a sizable portion of creators that make its form worthwhile maintaining. They curate wholesome and worthwhile trends like this that pierce through the thick malaise present in the app and help older generations glance into the minds of Generation Z and what their vision of the future is.

The shanty's distinguishing characteristic was its 'call and response', performed between a leader and the rest of the workers in chorus. The shantyman was the leader of the song and was appreciated for his stimulating language, humourous lyrics and powerful voice. Shanties were traditionally sung without instruments and were originally work-based songs for sailors and labourers on-board merchant sailing vessels. They have their origin in the 18th century and were found mainly on British and other European ships, making it a unique characteristic for the European peoples. Later in the early 20th century, these ditties were turned into leisure and land-based songs as a type of celebration of nostalgia. From there, war songs and poetry-turned-folk music began to gain popularity. With the turn of the 21st century, these songs have seen new-found enjoyment largely among the younger generations.

Key themes in shanties are the tragedies and loss of life a sailor or labourer endures on long trips, exhaustion from the back-breaking work and the comradery you find among the ranks. They are the perfect anthems to replace the garbage that is being fed to the working class by Americanism. Being of mainly British origin, you can also find strong themes of 'blood and soil' being used as inspiration for the more emotional songs. Although the sailor may dread his next trip, being a sailor is all he knows and sees it as his duty to break his back for his comrades on-board for the adventure.

I believe the combined efforts of The Longest Johns, a British folk music quintet, and the 2017 video game Sea of Thieves have either partially or fully helped give the folk music genre a new breath of life. Without their influence over the past few years, shanties may not have fully matured throughout the pandemic. The simple hallmark of the shanty makes it the perfect medium to spread solidarity through troubling times. This trend may very well be another example of the continually cyclic nature of time, where old trends reoccur and disappear without foresight. The attraction is the creation of culture; a culture with a soul and noble spirit that hits you deep in your being and awakens the blood memories of your ancestors within you through emotion, as we are our ancestors, carrying their blood within us. Folk music and shanties are unique in that their lyrics are contextually historic, dated, carefully crafted and poetic, and when you contrast that to what is popular now you can see why there is such an appeal.

The world of adventures aboard large ships to distant, unknown lands is gone, but I believe the existential crisis of the younger generations is due to a vacuum of adventure and purpose continually being sucked from the world without an obvious replacement, as we hurl towards the unknown. Previously, it was the brave men of the working class that were allowed to sail into the unknown, often at the behest of a state official. Contemporarily, the contrast between epochs appears with new lofty heights, and ambitions of being an astronaut colonising distant planets remains unreachable for most for the time being. All the world's oceans and continents have been explored, secluded tribes the world over have been found and mostly been contacted, which leaves space as the only new frontier. In a way, this trend is also a throwback to times where there was a preplanned purpose for young men and a sense of excitement and danger, but we now have the luxury of sitting and paying tribute to the brave men of the past with a sense of pride, striving to emulate them and taking a glimpse into the world that was through our folk music.


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