If you are a Maritimer, chances are good that at one time or another, you’ve asked “What do you with a drunken sailor” (as my three-year-old niece did when her parents had company) or encouraged others to “heave away.” These words come from what we call “sea shanties,” work songs once sung by sailors to accompany their rhythmical labour on board large sailing ships. Led by a “shantyman,” who set the pace and sang the verses, the crew would belt out the chorus as a collective, all working together to keep the ship afloat. Lyrics tended to focus on things like whaling, strong winds, harpoons and the gal left back home.
“the ocean and the sea shanties reflect our age-old ties with the water surrounding us”
Though the days of sail are long past, many of us have been introduced to sea shanties by popular Atlantic Canadian bands such as Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea or Prince Edward Island’s Ten Strings And A Goatskin. As Island trad-folk singer Rowen Gallant explains, people came to the island across the ocean, settled close to the ocean, made a living from the ocean and the sea shanties reflect our age-old ties with the water surrounding us. Whether in a pub or a concert setting, audience members mimic sailors of old by roaring out the chorus, often while hoisting a glass of rum, a beer or some other sort of grog. When things get really rollicking, you can just imagine GBS’s Alan Doyle raising a toast with his trademark expression: “The arse is out of ‘er!”
These days, the lowly sea shanty is having a global moment – thanks to TikTok (#ShantyTok) and other social media platforms. It all started when Scottish postman and musician Nathan Evans posted a video of himself singing “Wellerman,” a New Zealand sea shanty. Since then, videos tagged with #seashanty have more than 1 billion views and, according to Spotify, some 12,000 sea shanty playlists have been created so far in 2021. Rather than old salts, today’s fans, according to Saltwire columnist John Demont, “might be urban and professional, might never have downed a flagon of rum, or stood on a deck in choppy seas,” but that doesn’t stop them from joining the craze.
“Bizarre isn’t it, that this centuries-old musical tradition is raging across the digital world in the 21st century”
Bizarre isn’t it, that this centuries-old musical tradition is raging across the digital world in the 21st century. But wait, given the odd year we’ve just come through, perhaps it’s not so strange after all. Maybe, with all of our physical distancing and yearning for connection, this genre which was meant to bind separate bodies together into one shared, cooperative action is floating our boat quite nicely at the moment. Or maybe we just need to get loud and celebrate something – even if it’s something most of the world had never heard about until the last month or so.
At Mary Manette Seafood, we are all about traditions. Our carefully selected handcrafted smoked tinned Canadian seafood celebrates our seafarers and brings the Atlantic Ocean to your table, wherever it may be. So, crack open a tin or two of Mary Manette’s naturally smoked herring and hoist a Beach Chair Lager in honour of those who came before us. Oh, and about that drunken sailor, put them in a longboat till they’re sober – early in the morning!