One of the first great trends of 2021 has turned out to be sea shanties. Micro-current historians have traced the craze, at least in part, to a TikTok video released by Nathan Evans, a Scottish postal worker. His version of “Soon May the Wellerman Come” has spawned an international cooperition of other singers and musicians who’ve added to a song that has created a sense of community among many who’ve never been to sea. It even got the attention of the New York Times. In the long, waning days of 45’s term in office (what a foul taste that leaves in my mouth) people were feeling isolated and largely directionless. It isn’t so different than, I imagine, being out to sea. I grew up away from the ocean, longing to be there. Nevertheless, I didn’t discover Moby-Dick until seminary.
Melville’s classic is essential reading for those who want to exegete “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” While I’m a vegan for a reason, understanding the lyrics of this particular shanty require some knowledge of whaling. The wellerman was a supply ship that met whalers on their often multi-year voyages, to bring them provisions. They’re not mentioned in Moby-Dick because the Weller brothers ran their operations out of Oceania. The idea of relief being brought by others is nevertheless something we can all appreciate as we’ve been isolated from each other while being given the cold shoulder by the Republican Party. The fact that a nineteenth-century sea shanty has the pandemic-ridden world by storm is really no surprise. There’s a romance to the sea and those of us lubbers who spend our days on dry ground sometimes dream of the freedom the oceans represent.
Although not a shanty, a sea song that’s always spoken to me is “Sloop John B.” A folk song from the Bahamas, it tells the tale of a homesick passenger wanting to go home. It shares an element with sea shanties like “Wellerman.” Both seek rescue. Many world religions suggest humans need “salvation” of some kind—from sin in Christianity or samsara in Hinduism or Buddhism. Songs of the sea also frequently share that hope of help. Whether it’s the supply ship or a return home, a longing for salvation runs through the romance of the sea. I can’t help but think that during this pandemic that need has surfaced in a viral song about the wellerman expected, but not yet arrived. Or the trip to normalcy delayed. However we might interpret them, songs of the sea give us some hope that the journey home will eventually come.
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