I've had something stuck in my head the last few days.
Yes, it is that rousing TikTok rendition of The Wellerman. But alongside it, I've been ruminating on just why it is that the sudden revival of a relatively obscure class of music has filled me with joy that I was not expecting to feel in these dark days.
For those who have not read up on why the whole internet seems to be talking about sea shanties, a quick recap:
It all started with a post on TikTok by Nathan Evans, who posted himself singing the sea shanty "The Wellerman."
Lovely even on its own, but this little ditty was destined for more. Evans had been covering sea shanties for a while, but for some reason, this one took off. Other TikTok users began to add to it, filling in the harmonies across vocal ranges.
If you have time to do a deep dive and watch this particular TikTok user layer on harmonies from bass all the way up to tenor 1, I highly recommend it.
But this isn't even close to the end. Others added their harmonies to the piece, including additional voices on the melody. And finally, a fiddle was added, giving some instrumental accompaniment to this lovely vocal arrangement.
I say finally, but really this process is anything but linear. There are endless combinations out there now, as different people add on to the song in various stages. If you search "sea shanty TikTok" you'll find dozens of different combinations, end even remixes and mash-ups. It's a beautiful, organic, meandering process.
Music has been a large part of my life from very early. My mom has a guitar that she would sometimes bring out in my childhood and strum some folk tunes. Her influence instilled in me a deep love for Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and old Irish folk songs. My dad's status as an ultimate Beatles fan has given their voices a permanent, nostalgic association with some of my earliest memories, like a soundtrack for my childhood thirty years out of place in spacetime. One of my biggest regrets to this day is abandoning my piano lessons in my early teens when I grew bored with the compositions I was learning.
Neglected piano aspirations aside, I'm still a musician. I've sung in choirs for most of my life. In fifth grade, I joined a children's choir, and aside from a few short breaks during intense periods in my post-secondary education, I have been part of a choir ever since. I met most of my closest friends through making music together. Music builds ties between people. It's hard to create something together and not become closer. It requires coordination, communication, listening to each other, connecting to the same beauty and enhancing it in a way that is not selfish.
And music is full of pathos. There's a reason we score movies and television shows. There's a power to music even when we only experience it. Its power is in what it makes us feel.
I've been embedded in music my entire life, and it has been embedded in me. And in the last year of social distancing, I've mourned that hole in my life.
And then sea shanty TikTok arose. Some might call it the unlikeliest of trends in today's climate of fear and anxiety and loss, while others might call it a fitting acknowledgment of our current state. Sea shanties contain many elements of the current human condition: a deep sense of yearning, the ever-present awareness of danger, and the urge to stubbornly push on, beating our oars against stormy seas, knowing that once we are in the midst of it, the only way out is to go through.
For me, this movement was a much-needed revival. To see a group of complete strangers come together (virtually) in a time when we are all tired and frightened and anxious and sad in an act of such spontaneous, generative creativity - well, it almost makes me wish I was on TikTok. Almost.
One of the reasons I am motivated to write is that I want to find beauty and hope in darkness. The human experience is so complex. It contains such highs and lows, and it is capable of great destruction - and great creation. This viral trend - here one day and gone the next - is a microcosm of the good that we have in us. It's a fleeting reminder in the darkest of times of the healing power of music, and the beauty in humanity that gives us something worth saving.
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