Believe it or not, there was a time before TikTok. A time before record deals and a time before music was pretty much exclusively a form of entertainment. If you think work’s monotonous now, imagine the grim environments of the 19th century. Dim, dangerous factories with lax safety laws and thrumming machines from dawn till dusk, chain gangs clanging away at rocks for new roads. Of course, you could set sail for the colonies, but it was not a quick fix. You had to spend weeks, sometimes months, at sea to get anywhere of note. Naturally, rowers had to entertain themselves, and the steady beat of each stroke provides a good rhythm for a song. These tend to lend themselves to harmony given how many singers there may be, and have survived into a 21st century social media trend. Enduring, indeed.
Shanties have enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, so surely we should investigate exactly why it is they fell out of favour in the first place. It’s a relatively simple story and it has to do with a few things, but it’s mainly the fact that time moved on while they stood still.
When ships began to develop away from rowing and sailing in the 19th century, the crew was hugely reduced. No longer did you need a huge team of people manning the oars or hoisting the sails; instead a small crew manned a ship and stayed in their respective positions. Boilermen would stoke the engines, lookouts would sit in the crow’s nest, etc. Automation killed the need for people to stay in a regimented rhythm through song – and there would be no leader there to keep the call and response going. Thus, the bulk of sea shanties that survived beyond this period were carried into labour clubs by veteran sailors.
Thus, the shanties are usually about the hardships sailors would have to endure at the hands of imperialist merchants trading in exotic material from around the globe – difficult journeys with little nourishment and not much respite on either side. Much like the Romans (soldiers received their salaries in salt,) these merchant seamen would often be paid their wages in goods rather than money and as such a lot of the shanties also refer to the pittance that the sailors had to work for.
Viral hit ‘The Wellerman’ is just such a song. It has enjoyed unusual prominence in modern society owing to versions by band The Longest Johns and Scottish (now ex) postman Nathan Evans. The song itself, believed to have been written in New Zealand during the 1860s, refers to the plight of sailors seeking whales to render into oil. Despite their protected status in maritime law today, this was actually fairly common practice in Victorian times. You might get the idea that the ‘Wellerman’ in the song is one of these sailors; however the Weller company is more of a travelling salesman-type deal. Representatives of the company would visit passing ships to sell various wares in high demand for sailors (i.e. sugar, tea, rum.) Though it was never officially written until 1966, it has been suggested that the writer of the 1966 version had inherited it from an uncle who had been a sailor on one of these very ships.