Few people would have imagined that a 19th-century sea song from New Zealand would be the number one song in the UK music charts the first week in February. But it does show that in these days of isolation and separation we all need connection; taking part in communal traditions can help us get us through.
Traditional song is often thought of as a stable, unchanging inheritance from a bygone age, but much of its value is in the personal and social process through which we create, sing and pass on songs. This takes us right to the heart of this kind of singing: creativity and taking part.
Most folk songs originate, of course, as one person’s creative expression, but, as English song collector Cecil Sharp said, the community decides what becomes of it, whether it is set aside or taken up, added to and passed on, becoming “traditional” by its currency.
Scottish TikTok star Nathan Evans has garnered more than 8m views for his recording of a traditional New Zealand whaler song, and the hashtag #seashanty now has more than 3 billion views.
Evans’ catchy TikTok is riding a wave tied into the popularity of pirate films and video games like Assassin’s Creed IV Blackflag (whose shanty/folk soundtrack has sold 15m copies), and the continuing interest in the pirate aesthetic – facilitated by the surge in popularity of short-form, raw videos.
Behind this phenomenon, though, is the need to connect with each other in difficult times. For many, the pandemic has exposed a curious relationship with our past, and a significant disconnect with generations-old skills and knowledge around survival, the ability to make and to make do.
As my colleague, folklorist Carley Williams, wryly told me:
Social media is now full of people feeling accomplished and showing off … what were just basic survival skills a couple generations ago: baking bread, knitting, sewing, growing vegetables, etc. Because it’s social media there’s a competitive element to it and I keep thinking if my great-grandma had opened her front door and shouted, “I knitted a sock!”, she’d have been laughed out of town. But today, that photo posted online has hundreds of “Oooh! So amazing!” comments from peers.
Much has been written about the specific relevance of the sea shanty to the lockdown experience (isolation, repetition and monotonous work), but I think the phenomenon goes deeper than that. These rhythmic, simple, largely “opensource” songs are easy and enjoyable to sing, and that is key to their appeal.
But perhaps equally significant is TikTok’s duet function that allow us to easily contribute to a constantly evolving shared output. The shanty’s capacity to go viral is derived from people taking part in a dynamic and cooperative creative act – a living tradition connecting us to people around the world.
Songs for all seasons
Back in the 19th century, merchant shipping was a man’s world, a fact perpetuated to a great extent in the contemporary shanty community. But folk song’s subversive streak runs deep and the songs have been freely co-opted to become a vehicle for contemporary comment.
Women, offended and bored in equal measure by this casual sexism from bygone times have responded with relish, just as the all-female waulking song tradition of the past afforded opportunity for creative topical comment and humour.
Here, women beat woven tweed fabric to shrink and tighten it, harnessing rhythmic songs to lighten the work. In the 1950s, some Hebridean women are said to have improvised mischievous verses in Gaelic about American song collector Alan Lomax right in front of him, as he recorded their songs for posterity.
The shanty phenomenon has also spawned numerous parodies, popsongs, #UnionSongs (song of slavery, freedom, protest, dissent and struggle), remixes, choreography and recipes, as well as resonating with special interest groups such as #birates, bringing together bisexuality and pirates.
Community and connection
We all need the communal creativity that traditions old and new represent. We all have something to offer, as Scotland’s great folklorist and poet Hamish Henderson discovered while recording in the berry fields of Blairgowrie in the 1950s: everyone was given a chance to sing, regardless of ability. Taking part was the important thing.
For our forebears, this communality was often found in the context of backbreaking work, where cooperation was essential, whether at the capstan of a ship or at the waulking board processing tweed.
For us in these days of COVID-19, it’s the hard work of staying connected in trying times. By taking part in creative acts, from joining in with traditional songs to baking sourdough bread and sharing online, we affirm our connection to others in the present and a deep relationship with our heritage, an act which represents the socio-historical connections we need to survive in a hostile world.
Taking part in folk song can make us creative communal beings once again, connecting us with a sense of achievement and hope. In this pandemic, we confront a collective threat that requires a collective response to affirm that we are all in this together. Not only must we sing together, but we must live up to an ideal of community in which we are responsible for each other’s wellbeing.
Thomas McKean works for the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.
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