How a Sea Shanty Took Over TikTok: Viral Singers on the Song’s Appeal
There are a lot of songs that have TikTok to thank for a second burst of popularity—Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” and Ke$ha’s “Cannibal,” for instance. But it’s safe to say that no one expected a sea shanty to make that list. “Soon May the Wellerman Come” is a New Zealand folk song without a clear origin (although it is believed to have originated with an 1800s shore-whaling company called the Weller Bros). The shanty has been covered countless times in the years since, but surely none of them have been heard by as many people as the one 26-year-old indie musician Nathan Evanss posted on TikTok, inspiring a string of duets from a mass of burly men.
“I didn’t mean for it to blow up the way it did!” Evanss, who by day is a postman in the Scottish town of Airdrie, tells me over Instagram DM. He’s been singing and playing guitar since he was a kid, and recorded his first sea shanty—”Leave Her, Johnny”—back in June 2020. That alone received over a million views on TikTok, prompting Evanss to record “Wellerman” in December.
“I’ve loved watching all the duets and videos everybody has made,” he says. “And even the remixes that people have come up with.”
Jonny Stewart was one of those duetters.
“I’d had success adding baritone harmonies to a different video—these fill the gap between the bass singer and the upper harmonies—and thought I could thicken out the texture a bit,” the 29-year-old, whose duet of the video has received over 800,000 views (and 60,000 retweets on Twitter) tells me over email. “I’d done some a cappella harmonies on a different sea shanty vid before, so I knew I’d get a fair amount of views, although not this many.”
Stewart, currently on health-related leave from a job in financial services in London, has been performing and singing since he was young, and is a member of the six-piece vocal ensemble NoVI. He joined TikTok for the same reason the rest of us did, I assume: to “test some subharmonic bass techniques.”
“I didn’t know anybody on TikTok so figured it’d be a safe space to make weird noises!” he says. “Most of my content involves me singing bass harmonies for other people’s music. I essentially treat my vids as public practice sessions.”
Not everyone who’s gotten involved has a musical background. Twenty-three-year-old Promise, who lives in Houston, Texas, is an ICU nurse whose video with his brother has received over three million views.
“My brother was going on a drive and he said, ‘Promise, there’s a song I want you to listen to,’” Promise says over Instagram DM. “I thought it was weird at first, but it was amazing.”
Promise’s duet dramatizes that backstory. What starts as a video mocking his brother for his music choices turns a full-on, full-volume sing-along. Promise attributes the song’s sudden popularity to the fact that it’s easy to sing and anyone can get involved, even if they’re not a musician.
Stewart also credits the simplicity of the trend for its popularity, as well as the “sense of adventure, togetherness, and freedom in sea shanties—which, in the middle of a global pandemic with no clear end in sight, is something which we don’t have enough of at the moment.”
Indeed, the trend has renewed interest in sea shanties more generally. Spotify has a surprising number in its library; Stewart recommends the band The Longest Johns.
As for Evanss, his career has blown up thanks to his original December video. He got back to me over Instagram DM in between other interviews and meetings about his creation.
“There is a five track sea shanty EP coming soon to Bandcamp,” Evanss teases. “So keep your eyes peeled on my Twitter account.”