Sea Shanties and Vibe Shift

blonde white woman dressed as mermaid in gold lurex dress with fishtail

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 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.

Zackary McKraken of Homeward Bound

Sea Shanties, Shanty Tok and the Wellerman

There can’t be many who don’t remember the pandemic Wellerman phenomenon. Here’s a reminder.

The pandemic Wellerman moment. Epic.

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.

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.

Yearnings

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

Published by Caroline

After 30 years as an academic anthropologist doing ethnography in India and the Gulf, Caroline now avoids airports and spends a lot of time walking, cycling or quad skating around for conversations and stories in their adopted home of Worthing. Caroline does public sector consultancy work and project evaluation, using creative research methods. Caroline also writes. Find them on Substack at https://substack.com/@carolineosella. (Yes, there's a WIP and yes, it's a campus novel, but hang on - it's not a memoir, and it's not a thinly-disguised writeup of people and situations. I studied creative writing, trained, practiced and ** made it all up**).

5 thoughts on “Sea Shanties and Vibe Shift

  1. Interesting read. Thankyou. Especially the views of someone visiting Worthing.
    Roots are important. At least the societies we grow up in. Reap what you Sow.

    1. Thanks! Was at the theatre yesterday to see Travis Albanza’s Sound of the Underground …. interesting refrain in that, to the effect that queers, Black and Asian folks, people with disabilities, have to face a lot of pain and grow roots deep into the mud and muck to hang on and stay alive … but the deeper the roots, the more mud that’s taken in, the taller and stronger and more beautiful the tree can grow. If that mud and pain is transfigured via doing the work of therapy and artistic expression. It was an incredible show, and an interesting metaphor for how humans can make beauty out of brokenness and pain. Jeez, it’s all a paradoxical dance, isn’t it? Seems to be the theme of the moment … Ren’s extraordinary track ‘hello Ren’ has broken out this week too. It’s been a week of pain transfigured to art.

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