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Sea Shanties: The Traditional Work Songs Taking TikTok by Storm

In one of the more surprising and delightful twists of late 2020 and early 2021, young landlubbers on social media app TikTok have fallen in love with sea shanties.

Shanty/shanties is sometimes spelled chanty/chanteys, which all derive from the French word "chanter," meaning "to sing." Use of the term in America dates back to at least the 19th century, with the tradition going further back elsewhere in the world.

Fishers, whalers and merchant sailors sang these folk songs in rhythm with tasks necessary for sailing ships. Different ditties suited different jobs. For instance, a capstan shanty would be sung while raising the anchor, while a halyard shanty accompanied longer periods of heavy labor.

A Scottish postman named Nathan Evans jumpstarted this unlikely "shantytok" craze with his renditions of "Soon May the Wellerman Come," "Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her" and other historic work songs. Evans' overnight fame has since landed him a deal with the record label Polydor.

For Evans, singing sea shanties many associate with cartoonish pirates offered a way to connect with others during a pandemic.

"I think that in these times when everybody's stuck at home, they're quite down, it's not been the best of times, so I think kind of in a weird way it cheers everybody up. ... It makes everybody feel united," he told NBC News.

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Sea shanties aren't exactly new to pop culture. For example, the Spongebob Squarepants theme borrows from old favorite "Blow the Man Down," and the 2019 romantic comedy Fisherman's Friends incorporates a shanty-singing ensemble. Before all of that, many of us unknowingly learned a how to play shantyman (the lead singers of their time) with a familiar chorus from old TV shows and movies: "What do you do with a drunken sailor/early in the morning?"

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A young audience's fascination with sailors' working songs may stem from a less likely source. The gamers that populate TikTok likely discovered sea shanties through Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) and Assassin's Creed Rogue (2014). Or perhaps they learned traditional shanty "Homeward Bound" from Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), the same game that indirectly brought us an internet sensation that's stood the test of time, "Old Town Road."

Sea shanties are not to be confused with sea songs, which were sung for pleasure. Traditional sea songs include "Spanish Ladies."

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