It’s the story we all need right now. Nathan Evans, 26, was working as a postman in Airdrie, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Landlocked, about an hour’s drive to Leith or to the Firth of Forth. He sat down with a bangybucket in December and he sang a sea shanty to put out on TikTok. I’m in my forties. TikTok is a foreign country. I’m aware of it though. I leave it to the young’uns. This all kicked off ages ago in terms of the internet. I’m late writing about it. But…
There are loads of people making and consuming content there, and the good people of TikTok liked this sea shanty. Like any good content generator Nathan did another shanty in order to surf the wave of popularity. This one was The Wellerman – an old whaling song. And it went completely viral. And I’m thrilled about it, because sea shanties are awesome.
Now all over the world people are playing around with this ancient form of group singing – easy enough for anyone but with loads of depth and history. I’ve been loving the videos of Americans playing it while driving and various celebrities joining in the growing online chorus. Millions of people now – actually millions – from everywhere in the world and they’ve all joined in with Nathan and his hard eyes and his practical hat. There are pop remixes and there are ones with crunchy bass, and the certainty of Nathan’s version combined with the perfection of his burr, his intensity on camera and his grounded nature in interviews – he’s a good vessel for it.
So good that he’s signed with Polydor. A month ago he was a postman. Now he’s got a recording contract. They’ve probably given him a shiny penny and three magic beans in exchange for fifteen generations of his family in slavery, but that’s a pretty good deal these days from record companies. Likely he’ll be thrilled until the magic beans are gone and he reads the small print.
For now, it’s a happy story about people singing together. And maybe Polydor weren’t evil. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha. But maybe.
Singing together is breathing together and breathing together is everything. It’s how rallies work. It’s how football supporters and churchgoers get their endorphins. It’s how I do my job. And it’s lovely to think that this guy has changed his life through a song, and made us all happy doing it.
It’s a good song too, even if you’ll get it stuck in your head. I’ve tried a few times to get Sea Shanties into plays I’ve been devising because, frankly, it’s pretty easy to make them sound awesome. The Wellerman is a verse and chorus song, designed for a different crew member to take the verses and the whole crew to join on a simple hopeful chorus. You’ve got some nice archaic language and it ends with mischief in the last moment, when the tonguing is done and they take their leave a final time and don’t sing the last word.
So thanks, Nathan. Of all the things to come out of this atrocious mess of a year we’ve just had, the resurgence of sea shanties in the popular imagination stands up.
What’s it about? It’s about an untenable situation that goes on for too long. It’s about a ship that harpoons a whale and the whale keeps fighting and pulling them by the harpoon. It pulls for 40 days. And still it pulls, long after it should all be over. For all we know the Billy of Tea is still being pulled around, and has been since 1870. The crew are in constant danger and fear for their lives, losing boats from the fleet, and comforting themselves by singing, and by hoping for the wellerman’s arrival with all the good things. Before long, kinder times will come for the Billy of Tea.
“Soon will the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.” Soon. All will be well. This article has his version embedded, with plenty more. It’s exactly the sort of thing I love, as you go down the videos there – lots of people coming together to add to something beautiful for the sheer joy of it.