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A recent online boom in sea shanties is a welcome surprise for longtime converts.
I was strolling along St Kilda Esplanade one afternoon last autumn with the magnificently moustachioed tour guide and photographer Daniel Bornstein when Bornstein revealed to me that he was a shantyman.
I pointed to a colourful container ship gliding through Port Phillip Bay.
‘Does that make you want to go hey ho?’ I asked.
‘I’m a shantyman,’ he replied. ‘Everything makes me want to go hey ho.’
I had never heard the word ‘shantyman’ before. I had no idea that shanty singing was even a thing. I began to investigate further. Then came ‘Wellerman’.
‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’, now known universally as ‘Wellerman’, is a nineteenth-century New Zealand whaling song that went viral on TikTok, a phenomenally popular social-networking service that allows any user to post their own brief musical (or non-musical) performances to every laptop, iPad and smartphone on the planet. With TikTok’s duet function, bedroom balladeers can record themselves singing along with the original artist’s — or anyone else’s — version of a song, and add depth, effects or instrumentation.
A version of ‘Wellerman’ by the little-known UK folk group The Longest Johns seemed to manifest the zeitgeist in January this year, with its mournful tale of frustrated expectation at a time when life seemed locked in stasis all over the world — except, oddly, New Zealand. It sparked thousands of tributes, imitations and augmentations. A subsequent recording of ‘Wellerman’ by Scottish folksinger and former postie Nathan Evans reached number one in the UK dance charts. A corporate neologism, ‘ShantyTok’, was coined to describe the sudden, unprecedented interest in sea shanties on social media.
It would be an understatement to suggest that the shantyquake came as something of a surprise to Australian shantymen and women, but local interest in the form had been growing steadily for some time. I spoke to Margaret Walters, a Sydney-based folk singer who performs (Covid-permitting) with the long-established ensemble Forty Degrees South, which began in the 1980s as the Sydney Shanty Crew then changed its name to the Ensemble of Fat Bearded Shanty Singers.
At the Dock, the Redfern Shanty Club belted out traditional favourites such as ‘South Australia’ and ‘The Whale’ with a vigour that had not recently been associated with the form. The club handed out song sheets and taught the tunes to newcomers each week. The very fact that there were any newcomers seemed to show this might be a sensible approach.
In Melbourne, Bornstein and Joe Hillel, the Grubby Urchins, had adopted a similar method when they came together in 2018. Although there was regular shanty singing on board the replica tall ship Enterprize in Port Phillip Bay, there was no longer much of a scene on land until the Grubby Urchins pioneered a shanty night at the Brothers Public House in Fitzroy. ‘The first session was a full house,’ says Bornstein, ‘and, after that, they just kept growing and growing. And we did nothing in terms of spreading the word. It just kind of grew itself.’
You can listen to an original ‘library shanty’ by the Grubby Urchins below.
Dr Mark Dapin is an author and journalist whose history books include The Nashos' War, Australia's Vietnam: Myth vs History and Jewish Anzacs.
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