hen they hear the words “seaside shack,” most people only think of one thing: the Wellerman. Although the art form has been around for hundreds of years, it rose to prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Scottish postman Nathan Evans went viral for posting his version of the slum on TikTok.
Although the hype has died down and the Wellerman strains have long since disappeared from the airwaves, the song of the sea continues to attract fascination around the world – and in fact, is experiencing something of a revival, occupying the front of the scene at folk festivals, films and even Glastonbury.
Despite their popularity, shanties’ roots are humble: they began life as a work song. “They developed over a fairly short window, really, between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the late 1810s and the rise to steam dominance in the 1870s and 1880s,” says Gerry Smyth .
As well as being part of a slum cluster himself, Smyth, a slum enthusiast, is Professor of Irish Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University and has also published a book on the subject.
The story of the sailor’s hut, he says, is special. “You have teams of men working on particular tasks around the ship, mostly related to pulling and pushing, and those tasks can be done more efficiently if everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.
“So you get a guy called the shantyman, and he sings a line. Then the work crew… would sing the second line and they would all do the same task, which was pulling on a rope or pushing on a capstan.
For Smyth, it’s no surprise that the slum has gone viral in lockdown – although he’s adamant that what people would today call slums are, strictly speaking, nautical ballads.
“It’s a very simple kind of music. And it’s music that can be played and enjoyed in a group,” he says. “It confirms our common humanity in some ways…there’s something incredibly powerful about a group of people singing in unison.”
One of the most prominent champions of the genre is the folk group Fisherman’s Friends. Formed in 1995 in the Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac, the group has enjoyed international success: they have performed six times at the Glastonbury Festival, bringing the song of the sea to a whole new audience.
This summer the sequel to the first film based on their exploits (entitled Fisherman’s Friends: One and All) is set to be released, featuring even more songs and paving the way for the musical Fisherman’s Friends, which is currently in rehearsal in Cornwall before heading to toured the UK and Canada.
“There are really only two kinds of music: good and bad,” says the band’s manager and co-producer of the film, Ian Brown, when I ask him why he thinks the shanty has remained so popular. “The Sea Shanties are the pop songs of 1782, so it’s no surprise they’ve lasted this long: there must be something right about them.”
Although the group’s success long predates the 2020 slum craze, Brown says he’s noticed a shift in their audience since it happened. “As our shows have gotten bigger and bigger, I think the slum craze has meant our audience is starting to get a lot younger, which is good.”
That interest shows no signs of dying either. “We may have strayed a bit from the media, but not from the general public,” he says – in fact, the band have an upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall to plan for in the coming months.
“I think that’s what’s interesting with streaming and social media, it’s going on. There are pockets of people who are still interested and want to know more about the story and everything.
Nathan Evans, who shot to fame with his portrayal of Wellerman, agrees. “[The shanty craze] definitely brought thousands and thousands of people’s ears to a genre of music that they didn’t know about,” he says.
Evans, who confesses the song became ‘bigger than I could ever imagine’ when he released it, found enough success on Wellerman’s back to launch a career in music – but still remains best known for his first hit.
And it shows no signs of disappearing. “Although the wave may have passed, it certainly brought a lot of people with it. Every day, people still find this song; people still send me messages saying, “I just heard this song for the first time, from the other side of the world”. So yes, it continues.
With people around the world embracing sea shanties like never before, it’s perhaps no surprise that the genre continues to evolve in surprising ways.
The Fisherman’s Friends regularly fuse their music with modern tunes (an upcoming performance will mix traditional tunes with Whiskey in the Jar and Sweet Home Alabama) and member Jon Cleave is adamant that it honors the genre’s maritime history.
“People of different nationalities were on these ships, and each would have contributed something to the songs,” he says.
“So you could get an African beat, an Irish folk jig, maybe some English folk lyrics, all wrapped into one song. And then, as the song progressed, or the crews went from ship to ship, they took the songs with them, and then they were adapted again.
“When we sing stuff, some folk purists will say, ‘You shouldn’t change those lyrics.’ But actually, I think you should because it continues the tradition.
“Shanties can be very creative and it’s great to see people being creative,” agrees Smyth. “There’s a sort of avant-garde slum wing, where people will write their own songs and merge them with other forms of music.”
“In Poland they have a kind of jazz-shanty hybrid, and people have been doing rock versions of shanties for years as well. The Sex Pistols did a version of Friggin in the Riggin, for example.
“People have been adapting it since the songs first evolved. I think it’s a great school. So there’s enough for everyone to get out into the world; so that everyone has their say and does what they want.
With the genre looking richer and more vibrant than ever, is there any chance it will die out one day? Smyth doesn’t think so. “I think they speak to some sort of primal need within us,” he says.
“The sea is one thing, it is a fact. But it’s mysterious at the same time, and it says a lot about our condition. As we continue to know and dominate the natural world, the sea remains completely mysterious to us in many ways.
Fisherman’s Friends: One And All hits theaters August 19