As new musical genres gain popularity, they are often acknowledged with their own genre-specific Billboard charts. Over the years, disco and reggae are among the musical genres awarded their own tallies. An old musical genre is going viral on TikTok, starting with Scotland’s Nathan Evans’ posting of the 19th century shanty “Wellerman” during the last week of December 2020. That inspired other TikTokers to post their own videos of these sailors’ working songs. But does that mean there will soon be a Sea Shanties chart?
Perhaps not. Only one song considered to be a sea shanty has been a major hit on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1966, the Beach Boys sailed to No. 3 with “Sloop John B,” a song that dates back to 1916 when it was originally known as “The John B. Sails.” The Kingston Trio recorded it as “The Wreck of the John B.” in 1958. Al Jardine of the Beach Boys loved folk music and during the sessions for the group’s “Pet Sounds” album, he played the song for Brian Wilson, whose reaction was that he wasn’t a fan of the Kingston Trio. So Jardine played the song on the piano again, giving it a Beach Boys feel. Within 24 hours, the song was recorded, with some lyrical changes by Wilson. “Sloop John B” was the highest-charting single from “Pet Sounds.”
Even though “Sloop John B” is the only sea shanty to be a hit on the charts, many other artists have turned to the venerated genre. Other folk artists besides the Kingston Trio have recorded sea shanties, including Pete Seeger, Odetta and Burl Ives. Ives recorded an entire album of sea shanties, “Down to the Sea in Ships.” The 18-track LP included titles like “Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor” and “The Sailor’s Grave.” In 2006, Bruce Springsteen recorded an album of Seeger songs, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and included two of Seeger’s sea shanties, “Pay Me My Money Down” and “Shenandoah.” The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
British folk singer Ewan MacColl (writer of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”) included many sea shanties in his repertoire, and the Sex Pistols took the 19th century ode “Friggin’ in the Riggin’” to No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart in 1979. Many artists with Irish roots have turned to the genre, including the Pogues, the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners and the Irish Rovers.
While filming the 2006 release “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” actor Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, in collaboration with producer Hal Willner, assembled the album “Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys” featuring recordings by artists like Sting, Bono and Bryan Ferry. A sequel, “Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys” was issued in 2013, which included tracks by artists like Marianne Faithfull, Tom Waits and Dr. John.
The viral world of TikTok videos changes quickly, so it’s difficult to know how long sea shanties will be popular. But for now, it’s down to the sea in ships with this very old musical form.