What is a “sea shanty”?

I recently heard the late night TV host Stephen Colbert say that 2021 is the year of the sea shanty. These jaunty work songs are suddenly popular on TikTok and other social media. During the age of the sailing ship, sailors sang a shanty such as “The Drunken Sailor” in unison while they were aloft reefing (rolling up) sails or hauling up the anchor:

“Way, hay, and up she rises,

Way, hay, and up she rises,

Way, hay, and up she rises,

Early in the morning.”

Naturally I included sea shanties to Captain William Richardson’s story. From his life in the British merchant marine and on whalers, he’d collected a repertoire of songs. He possessed a marvelous voice and loved to entertain dinner guests with spirited sea shanties. His audience joined him on the chorus, stamping their feet and clapping in time to the lively tune. In one dinner scene, I describe him with a glass of aguardiente in one hand and his arm around his wife, as he sang this folk song:

“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year,

And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer,

But now I’m returning with gold in great store,

And I never will play the wild rover no more.

And it’s No, Nay, Never

No, Never no more

Will I play the wild rover, 

No, Never, No more….”

Why sea shanties are suddenly popular again is a mystery. Perhaps because we are all in this Covid-19 crisis together and the cheery tunes help to alleviate the monotony of quarantine just like the monotony sailors dealt with, toiling at sea and confined to a small ship.

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