15 Jan 2021

Sea shanty TikTok?

From Summer Times, 11:40 am on 15 January 2021


One of the first cultural trends of 2021 is a revival of sea shanties! Social media platform TikTok lets people make short videos with audio to share. But importantly you can add to other people's videos. 

One particular shanty has taken the platform by storm, and suddenly everyone is singing and sharing one particular sea shanty, with a surprising New Zealand connection.


15 May 2020, Wewelsfleth: View into the rigging of the four-masted barque "Peking" at the Peters shipyard.

Photo: Christian Charisius/dpa

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Sea shanties? Local history? Choral arrangements? This is all very much in the wheelhouse of RNZ's Robert Kelly so he's sailed into the Summer Times studio to explain.

Kelly says the shanty has a number of names but its commonly called ‘Soon may the Wellerman come’ or ‘the Wellerman comes’.

“Basically, anything with ‘Wellerman’ in it is the right shanty.”

He explains that shanties had their origin in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

“They’re songs defined by an alternating chorus and verse structure. It’s a call and response and they were designed to be used on sailing ships.”

The Wellerman refers to a ship from the Weller company, a whaling ship resupply service that ran out of Australia and New Zealand.

Kelly says the beat and rhythm of shanties were made to match the pulling of ropes and scrubbing of decks.

“There’s a rhythm to that action so you need rhythms in the songs to create it.”

The recent popularity of sea shanties seems to have stemmed from TikTok user Nathan Evans who posted a video of himself singing the Wellerman.

A function on TikTok allows people to add to other’s videos, so there were soon four bass singers, a violinist, two altos, three sopranos and a baritone taking part in the shanty.

“I think its amazing that this is happening, these songs are designed to be sung by anyone and with people and, especially in the UK where most of these people are from, people are very locked in and isolated.

“This is way for people to be able to communicate and create together. I think it’s a lovely thing.”