It started with a man singing the sea shanty “Soon May the Wellerman Come” on TikTok, a popular app the lets people get creative with video and sound.
What now is a trending topic on social media, was once part of the workday for sailors.
“A shanty, and some people call it a sea shanty, is a song that is used to coordinate labor and relieve tedium while performing physical labor,” said Library of Congress Folklife Specialist Stephen Winick.
He says the subject matter of these songs can give insight to what life was like on ships before the invention of the steam-powered ships.
“You know, talking about the type of work people performed on ships or the way in which people’s time was divided and how they spent their time on ships,” said Winick.
Shanties also talked a lot about life on shore. The lyrics would describe the places sailors visited and the people they met.
“All of those are kind of encoded into sea shanties and we can read the shanty's texts and figure out a lot of things about people’s lives from them,” said Winick.
That includes life on the Great Lakes. Many of the songs sung by sailors are preserved, in part, thanks to the work of Ivan Walton.
“He started going to lake towns around 1940 interviewing old sailors which was the only way to get these songs. They were locked in the memories of sailors who had come off of sailing vessels before the turn of the century,” said Joe Grimm.
Grimm is currently a professor of journalism at Michigan State University. He came across Walton’s collection in the 1980s, nearly two decades after Walton had passed away.
“I discovered that he had planned to write a book, but he had never finished the book,” said Grimm. “Professor Walton had passed away in in 1968, so he couldn’t finish the job, I thought I would finish the job for him trying to be true to his vision, but adding some value to his work.”
Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors details collections of songs of the Great Lakes including work shanties, story songs describing what life was like, and disaster songs.
Through Walton’s collection and the lyrics of the songs sung by Great Lakes sailors, Grimm has learned a lot of about their lives.
“They sang songs about bitter cold winters, they sang songs about lost friends, they sang songs about the perils of working on the lakes,” said Grimm. “There were myths in there. One of the myths or stories was that every seagull carried the soul of a drowned sailor.”
Walton found most of the songs in port towns talking to what he called his informants. One of his go-to’s was Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan.
“Men who had worked on vessels during the summer were on this island and they had nothing to do all winter but maybe work in the woods, drink and sing. So you had some really good singers on Beaver Island,” said Grimm.
Other places Walton would frequent were Marine Hospitals. He met Bob ‘Broken Back’ Cullen at one in Chicago.
“He had fallen and actually broken his back. That’s how he got his nickname. He was a very good source, if you handled him right,” said Grimm.
While the songs give us insight to a sailor’s life, they also held an important purpose.
“The work songs were really kind of cool cause they’re very simple. You could feel the work as you sang the song. You punctuated the song when you might be making a motion such as hauling out a line,” said Grimm.
The beat would help set the pace for the crews work. There would be different songs for different tasks. A sailor that could carry a tune was highly sought after and could earn more money aboard a vessel.
“A good shanty man, a lead shanty man could sing a song as long as work needed to done without every repeating a verse,” said Grimm.
Both Grimm and Winnick think the rise in popularity of sea shanties is a wonderful thing.
“I think they’re fun. I think that they’re made for anyone. It doesn’t matter about your voice quality they’re made for improvising. I think it’s wonderful,” said Grimm.
Winnick pointed out the ability of the TikTok app to allow people to collaborate and layer voices allow the songs to reflect how they were often song out, with a lead shanty man singing the verse and the crew joining in on the refrain.
“It’s a really nice sort of addition our pandemic life, right? That we’re able to collaborate again musically without being in the same room. I think it’s great all around,” said Winnick.
It’s also a connection that ties people that may never meet, much like the songs they sing.
“Just as one song on one boat might unify six men in raising a sail, these songs tied the whole great lakes together. You could go from port to port and you’d hear the same songs wherever you went, song by people who might never work together,” said Grimm.
Grimm worked with composer Lee Murdoc to take Walton’s work and provide sheet music for it. Below are some youtube videos of Murdoc’s work.