Last year, you probably remember the inexplicable viral popularity of “The Wellerman,” a sea shanty sung by TikToker Nathan Evans. It exploded across social media and spent two weeks at #1 on the UK Charts. But when I first heard it, I immediately questioned its legitimacy as a whaling song at all.
Is it really a sea shanty… or is it something else?
The answer is a whole lot more complicated than you might think.
WHAT IS THE WELLERMAN EVEN ABOUT?
“The Wellerman” describes a whaling ship by the name of Billy o’ Tea. (A billycan is a tin pot used to make tea or coffee.) The captain of the Billy sees a whale and commits to catching it. Alas, the crew loses four of its whaling boats in the process, but its hopes are bolstered by the deliveries of the Wellerman.
The chorus, you may recall, goes thusly:
Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguing is done
We’ll take our leave and go.
“Tonguing” refers to the process of stripping a whale’s blubber off in sheets to be processed into oil.
Hearing this song I was initially confused, mistaking the Wellerman and the Billy o’ Tea as a single boat. But the Wellerman was clearly a merchant vessel (as opposed to a whaling ship).
I still had a sense that the song felt off, because of the way whaling was described.
ARE YOU… ARE YOU ACTUALLY GATEKEEPING WHALING SONGS?
Not on purpose! It’s just that I’m absolutely fascinated by whaling culture.
One of my favorite books is In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. The destruction of the Essex was a massive news story in the 1820s, and the basis for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The Essex’s final voyage was in 1819; she sailed out of Nantucket, and at that time, Nantucket dominated the whaling industry. Whaleships would go south, round Cape Horn, and then venture out into the Pacific for their whales; the whales were killed in open water and processed on the ships.
So the line in “Wellerman” about “tak[ing] that whale in tow” puzzled me, as it sounded like the whale was being pulled ashore. What’s more, the song establishes that the Wellerman is bringing “sugar, tea, and rum” to the Billy o’ Tea; why isn’t restocking being done on the coast of South America, as was typical?
I looked up the history of this song and discovered that “Wellerman” isn’t a Nantucket song at all (as I incorrectly assumed because of the whaling reference). It’s a New Zealand folksong written sometime in the 1860s. New Zealand whaling was quite different from the Nantucket industry; for one thing, they processed the whales on shore stations, not on the whaling ships themselves, which explains the “tak[ing] the whale in tow” part of the song.
The Wellerman refers to a ship owned by the Weller Brothers, two of the foremost New Zealand sea merchants of the 19th century. They owned a fleet of trade boats and, surprise, whaling stations, and paid their shore whalers in groceries, called “slops.” So the song isn’t about a ship refueling so much as it is about getting paid. The shore whalers were close enough to the station not to need supplies for long journeys; the Wellerman’s rations of tea, sugar, and rum were the salaries of the crewmen.
There’s some debate that “Wellerman” may have been a “cutting-in” song, sung while whales were being processed ashore, but even if it’s a whaling song, it does not qualify as a sea shanty in the strictest sense.
SO WHY ISN’T IT A SEA SHANTY?
Sea shanties are specifically rhythm-based songs designed to aid in the harmonization of group tasks and long labors aboard a ship. The cadence is meant to act as a guide for when to heave (or haul), and when to rest. Referencing a ship does not a shanty make.
The word “shanty” is derived from the French “chanter” (to sing), but a true sea shanty is more of a chant or a call-and-response designed to coordinate a crew’s effort. Tasks like rowing, pulling anchor, or raising sail required a massive amount of effort that was precisely synchronized.
Sea shanties can be divided into capstan and halyard songs, according to whether they’re meant for heaving or hauling. Capstan songs, for heaving (pushing), are named for the revolving cylinder in the middle of the ship that moved heavy weights via a pulley system. Here’s an example of a call-and-response capstan shanty. Capstan shanties were for long, tedious, continuous work and are thus characterized as long, plodding songs. Think “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Halyard songs, for hauling, are the type you’re likely more familiar with. (Note that the first one in this compilation, “Roll the Old Chariot,” specifically mentions raising sail.) Tasks like raising the sails required breaks, so these songs are characterized by a short but loud, rhythmic chorus (during which crewmen would be pulling) and verses in between (for breaks).
If “The Wellerman” were truly a sea shanty (used for work aboard a ship at sea), then it would be a halyard song. But, since it’s most likely a “cutting in” song, sung ashore and not for coordinated ship tasks, it can’t really be said to be a “shanty.”
WHAT’S AN EXAMPLE OF AN “AUTHENTIC” SEA SHANTY?
If you’ve heard the Sea Shanty Medley by Home Free, which begins with Wellerman, then you’ve heard “Cape Cod Girls” and “Santiana,” both among the most popular sea shanties of the 1850s. Both classic halyard songs, “Cape Cod Girls” is for hauling and “Santiana”is for heaving, making these two delightful complimentary shanties.
But a maritime song doesn’t have to be “authentic” to be enjoyed, and personally, I think it’s great that the popularity of Wellerman has led to a rise in interest in folk songs, be they shanty, cutting in, or otherwise. And if you’re interested in learning more, the man responsible for the Wellerman’s success, Nathan Evans, recently published The Book of Sea Shanties: Wellerman and Other Songs from the Seven Seas that dives into the backstory of the Wellerman, as well as 34 other maritime songs.