Mermaids, Sirens, Sailors
They carried the mermaid in and sat her on the bar, where she dangled her spangly tail and smiled at us all. I say ‘mermaid’, but she’s billed as the Sussex Siren.
The siren/mermaid turned out not to be at all dangerous. She was hardly luring us onto the rocks of drunkenness, tempting us up to the bar for beer. Most of us were already well onto that long before she emerged from the briny depths of the backroom changing space.
For this was a sea shanty singing session, led by Zackary McKraken. I do hope his surname is real.
Sea Shanties, Shanty Tok and the Wellerman
There can’t be many who don’t remember the pandemic Wellerman phenomenon. Here’s a reminder.
Someone has already written an academic dissertation on ShantyTok. Kirchenbauer’s thesis sails across already familiar waters – pandemic social isolation prompted a search for online connection; shanties speak into our experiences of loneliness and waiting; TikTok’s enabling technology steered us into new antiphonal courses; shanties were already primed in our unconscious, via pirate gaming, SpongeBob and bathyal folk memories. If you’re that old – I am – then even Captain Pugwash lies many fathoms deep in your pop culture repertoire. (And while we’re here, the stuff about Seaman Stains and Roger the Cabin Boy are pure urban myth).
White and Male or Hybrid and Complex?
But Kirchenbauer’s thesis also draws us to attend to the whiteness, the maleness of most performances, and to the fantasy of the shanty as a white man’s working song – evident in Shanty Tok. The thesis draws on a range of research material to explain that the ‘false narrative’ of the shanty as a white man’s work-song is itself only around 100 years old. History! Just a big ole’ story!
Many shanties are, musicologists tell us, derived from minstrel songs or African-American work songs, while the brine they marinaded in was a soup of hybridity, travel, cultural exchanges. Shanties are in no way a cultural product of white trawlermen or whalers.
Classic example, then, of the anthropological truth that our routes generally tell us more than does our fantasy-talk about roots.
Being mindful about that, and acknowledging the true heritage and complex travelling lineage of the shanty form, I reckon that, as post-post-moderns, we can still get a kick from those fantasies of piracy, running away to sea, and wearing cool matelot clothes.
The contemporary pub scene is full of yearnings. Craft beer, artisan food, independent small producers, micropubs where you’re encouraged to sit and natter to strangers.
We’re in the middle of vibe shift, for sure.
That’s a good thing. Anything that allows people to gather, sing, yearn and connect around communal participation in creative forms that resist homogenised and over-commodified passive bullshit holds much merit.
I’ve heard some cultural commentators claim that ‘earnest’ and ‘authentic’ are where we’re heading. Haul it in!
You can hear local sea shanty groups like The Wellington Wailers from Shoreham and Littlehampton’s Duck Pond Sailors at pubs and online in all the usual spaces. But the most fun you’ll have is when you don’t sit and listen to them – you come to sing and stamp a foot.
Heave-ho! Bringing the revolution in, via a million acts of micro-resistance and play.
Oh, a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm, And we’ll all hang on behind