Ocean travel today is relatively safe … even luxurious if you’re on a cruise ship. But back in the 19th century, sailors had to work hard just to stay alive on the wooden merchant ships that carried them across turbulent waters. And what makes difficult, repetitive manual labor seem less onerous? Music, of course!
Enter the sea chantey (or sea chanty), a type of work song that British sailors sang as far back as the 15th century. And while chanteys might not be necessary to help with hard labor any more, these catchy tunes are still around.
You’d probably recognize at least one or two of them, such as “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?”
Or how about “Blow the Man Down”? Not only did this chantey appear in Popeye cartoons, it’s the basis for the SpongeBob SquarePants theme.
Though it might seem strange, sea chanteys are experiencing quite a revival – Nathan Evans’ rendition of a whaler song called “Soon May the Wellerman Come” has been viewed billions of times on TikTok and well over 110 million times on YouTube. Sheldon and Penny even sang a chantey in one episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Chanteys are catchy, they’re upbeat, and you don’t need tremendous musical talent to enjoy singing them. They can still make work feel easier, too. (One person commented on a “Blow the Man Down” video, “I always play sea shanties [chanteys] when I’m cleaning the house, I like to pretend that I’m a weathered pirate doing maintenance on a rickety ship.”)
But perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe, after all the social distancing of the past two years, we’re hungry for fellowship. Music brings us together. As one professor explained, it makes us feel bonded and connected.
Whatever your reason for listening, there’s plenty to enjoy! Enjoy the revival on social media, and we hope that you can join us for the U.S. Navy Chorus performance of sea chanteys on June 12, 2022.