How a Scottish posties simple sea shanty struck a global chord – The Guardian

Folk music

Nathan Evans’s viral TikTok covers have sparked a huge surge in interest in the formerly neglected genre, making him an overnight sensation

Sat 16 Jan 2021 13.28 GMT

It is no exaggeration to say that sea shanties have changed Nathan Evans’s life. The 26-year-old postman from Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, has become a phenomenon online thanks to the driving, rhythmic a cappella music.

The sea shanty genre has unexpectedly broken into the mainstream, having become something of a global online obsession over recent weeks, mostly driven by the duet feature on the video-sharing social media app TikTok.

The result is hundreds of versions of popular sea shanties with satisfying layers of harmonised voices, sung by people who have never met — and a boost to a genre that was previously relegated to being a niche, even novelty, branch of folk music.


Google searches for the term “sea shanties” are at an all-time high in the US, and the Reddit sea shanties community is currently the ninth fastest-growing on the site, having doubled in size in the last week.

For Evans, who has been performing music for years, posting songs after finishing his early morning deliveries, it began with a cover of an Irish folk song Leave Her, Johnny, which he shared with a handful of followers on his TikTok account last summer.

“I hadn’t listened to many sea shanties, and then when that video took off I realised that people actually really liked that kind of music, and I found I enjoyed doing them,” he said. Six months and millions of likes later, he has more than 400,000 TikTok followers.

He is also appearing on radio, television and in articles all over the world and has even been complimented by American singer -songwriter John Legend.


“It’s all gone so fast and it was all a bit overwhelming,” he said.

Evans, who writes his own music, never imagined that his first EP would be sea shanties, but he is grateful nonetheless.

“They’ve changed my life,” he said. “They’ve opened up so many doors and opportunities that I would never have had if it wasn’t for them.”

Arguably, both the biggest instigator and beneficiary of this trend is the Bristol band the Longest Johns, who are veterans of the sea shanty game, having formed in 2013.

Jonathan “JD” Darley, Andy Yates, Robbie Sattin and Dave Robinson have spent the best part of the last decade performing sea shanties at festivals throughout the UK and had attracted a moderate fanbase.

But in late 2020, after the Longest Johns allowed Twitch streamers to use their music free of charge in the background of their streams, one song in particular exploded.

Sea shanties as they used to be sung: Reading Sea Cadets in 1941. Photograph: George W Hales/Getty Images

The Wellerman, a sea shanty originally from New Zealand, is currently No 5 in the world and no 2 in the US on Spotify’s viral chart, a list that takes into account listens and shares. Even more impressively, on Wednesday the Longest Johns’ version of The Wellerman entered Spotify’s top 200 most-streamed songs in the entire US.


This success has come in waves, they said, with a spike in popularity in the summer, then October, then again in December. “And then this has now happened and each one has gone bigger and bigger and bigger than the one previously as more people start to recognise and connect with the song,” Darley said.

“It’s just like this crazy spiral of growth that it’s seen.”

Promise Uzowulu, a 23-year-old nursing student from Houston, Texas, who goes by the TikTok handle @strong_promises, is partly responsible for this recent wave.

His 43-second video, singing along to the Longest Johns’ version of The Wellerman in the car with his 21-year-old brother Frank, charts the sincere emotional trajectory familiar to new sea shanty fans and has had tens of millions of views.

Uzowulu said: “He put it on and I was sceptical at first because he plays some weird music. But to my surprise I really liked the song. I asked him to play it on repeat until I learned the chorus.


“The video shows the honest progression from scepticism to full-blown enjoyment.”

The Longest Johns credit the genre’s simplicity and approachability for this. Sattin said: “I’d compare it to football chants. It doesn’t matter if you’re in tune or not.”

The Wellerman itself may have a unique appeal during the pandemic too, as the song is about waiting for a ship to bring supplies while on a seemingly endless whale hunt. (Soon may the Wellerman come/ To bring us sugar and tea and rum/ One day, when the tonguin’ is done/ We’ll take our leave and go.)

“It’s people stuck in a bad situation hoping for better. Something about that seems to resonate with people,” said Robinson.

Yates added: “Or maybe they just need a food delivery.”

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