Kate Stevens explores the origins of TikTok’s viral “sea shanties” trend, pointing it back to whalers in Aotearoa New Zealand. She recounts how the industry grew in the area, giving birth to new shanties and songs. Though whaling tradition began to fade by the 1840s, it heavily impacted the Ngāi Tahu people’s – the whalers in this area – culture and genealogy.
1. What are some old songs that continue to persist today? How have their meanings changed over time?
2. Why do you think some things, like sea shanties, resurface in the public consciousness? What makes them renew their popularity?
3. How does the internet “renew” old ideas or cultural phenomena?
Identify a current internet trend and research its origins. Do they surprise you? Create a meme, TikTok, etc. that adds to the modern meaning, brings attention to the original meaning, or creates a new meaning. How is renewal inherent in each of these processes?
Our musical system uses only 12 notes, and yet new ways of expressing with sound continue to emerge like branches on some endlessly blossoming tree. Despite regular expert predictions to the contrary, fresh musical genres, ways of performing, and even standards of sonic beauty continue to be discovered. Some new genres even evoke emotions that humans previously didn’t quite recognize. As Walt Whitman famously said, “music is what awakens in us when we are reminded by the instruments.”
It is often a new technology that opens the way to undiscovered musical territory. The development of music notation unleashed the great classical composers, audio recording brought about popular music as we know it, the invention of the sampler made Hip Hop do-able, and this sea shanty collaboration (across both space and time) was made possible by social media.
Have we reached the end of the line now? Has it all been done? As people grow older their thinking inevitably becomes “organized”, and their ability to perceive new paths diminishes. Discovery is the domain of the young. So don’t wait - trust your instincts and follow your visions now.
Kate Stevens is a lecturer in history at the University of Waikato. Her research focuses on comparative histories of cultural, environmental, and economic exchange in the colonial and postcolonial Pacific. Her teaching includes courses on Pacific history, global food and commodity history, and histories of the ocean.
To learn more about some of the controversy surrounding the Wellerman shanty, check out this article, titled "ShantyTok: is the sugar and rum line in Wellerman a reference to slavery?".
If you want more Wellerman, check out this 3-hour version of the song on YouTube. The video is not just sea shanty; it also intersperses some facts about the song, like the meaning of "wellerman."