Probing the Zeitgeist – #ShantyTok?

Welcome to Probing the Zeitgeist – where I attempt to explore, examine, and understand a particular part of the ephemeral popular culture of the day.

So, I am well aware that the inauguration was 10 days ago, and the Bernie meme was started on the day. In internet-meme-time, 10 days is an eternity. Luckily, I’m not examining the Bernie meme, save to say that the above video is a perfect example of a confluence of two different memes into one spectacular piece of postmodernism.

No, today, I am examining something that is both more in my wheelhouse, and far outside my wheelhouse, which is the popularity of sea shanties vis a vis Tik Tok. It’s in my wheelhouse in that I know something about music theory and musicology. Outside my wheelhouse in that I am almost as old as you can be and still be considered a Millennial. As such, I don’t use TikTok, and so don’t fully understand either the technology and culture of that community, so I’ll be examining the trend in a broader context.

Adam Neely is a musician, composer, and YouTube personality, who is known for explaining musical trends and oddities using music theory. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in Jazz Composition from the Berklee College of Music and holds an MM in Jazz Composition from the Manhattan School of Music. So he graduated with highest honors from a nationally acclaimed music college and then got his masters in jazz composition from another nationally acclaimed music college. For comparison, I have a BME from a regular old state university, and earned no latin honors. In fact, I think some of my professors would have given me latin DIShonors if they could have.

So, Adam is an absolute genius when it comes to music theory. He explains Sea Shanties much better than I could in the video below:

So, Adam pretty much covered it. Bye folks!


*Reenters holding a bathrobe, shower cap, and rubber ducky* What’s that? There’s more to talk about? Adam put all of the serious music theory behind a paywall on Nebula? I have to do work? Okay, okay.

So, Adam did cover quite a lot, the whys and wherefores, so to speak. but left out the meat and potatoes of music theory. I think I can speak to that.

Aside from Adam’s YouTube video (oddly enough, I do not have a subscription to Nebula, despite having a subscription to CuriosityStream), I’ve intentionally avoided what others have said on the topic, so that I don’t accidentally steal someone else’s ideas. So, if I bring up a point that someone somewhere else brought up, it is purely coincidental. I did research a bit about the song ‘Soon may the Wellerman Come’, and looked at a transcription of the melody, but that is the extent of it.

For the sake of this article, I’m limiting my analysis to the song ‘Wellerman’, which, from what I understand, is the primary tune going viral right now. Like Adam said, ‘Wellerman’ is not technically a sea shanty, but I’ll forgive anyone who believes that it is. It is gosh darn close to being one, and listening to music written prior to 1998 is something that I think should be encouraged in general.

Fellow Blogger Ethan Hein created a transcription of the version performed by The Longest Johns – a group that just does Sea Shanties and performs them very well.

I initially sat down at the piano and noodled out the first 2 measures’ melody off the top of my head – I hadn’t seen a transcription or any sheet music and had only heard the song a couple of times. For whatever reason, I thought that the A-flat was an A natural and thought ‘Ok – major pentatonic scale with a flat-7th scale degree – this is probably in mixolydian. A pentatonic scale and the mixolydian mode are both common in all kinds of folk music. Let me strut my funky stuff.’

And this is why it would have been nice to be able to see the part of Adam’s video that pertains to theory. I’m a classical musician. We are trained – in general – to be able to analyze and transcribe music written by other people who were also trained in classical music theory – 3 semesters of it that pertain mostly to the tonal harmony and form analysis rising from the conventions of the Common-Practice Period. And then the fourth semester we get to learn about atonal jello music that sounds like a cat running across a piano in the middle of the night.And this is why it would have been nice to be able to see the part of Adam’s video that pertains to theory. I’m a classical musician. We are trained – in general – to be able to analyze and transcribe music written by other people who were also trained in classical music theory – 3 semesters of it that pertain mostly to the tonal harmony and form analysis rising from the conventions of the Common-Practice Period. And then the fourth semester we get to learn about atonal jello music that sounds like a cat running across a piano in the middle of the night.

Jazz, on the other hand, can be this melting pot of many different forms and types of music, and frequently includes all kinds of modality and peculiar scales and modes and chords. Somewhat similarly, folk music (of which sea shanties are a type) will also often incorporate things like unusual voice-leading and more obscure scales, along with peculiar harmonic structures. So, a jazz composer would be better able to identify and explain those elements.

The Longest Johns version of the song is in the key of C Minor, though by ear, I remain pretty sure that the main branch going around tik tok has the raised third and is therefore in Mixolydian. I look forward to your emails telling me I’m wrong and a music theory n00b.


Great, so why is this tune so catchy right now?

I think that before we look at why the song is popular right now, we need to look at why the song is catchy to begin with.

  • Call and Response – The Call and Response can be found all through folk, sacred, and any number of other musical genres from one corner of the planet to the other. It shows up in folk music all the time. Take, for example, Barrett’s Privateers, or Northwest Passage – both of which are written and performed by the late great Canadian composer and folk music performer Stan Rogers. As an aside, many Canadians consider the latter of the two songs to better represent their country better than their statutory national anthem of O Canada.

    The Call and Response initially allowed one person to sing the verses while the rest of the group would sing the song’s chorus or refrain. This meant that only the leader had to know the lyrics to the verses, while the rest of the group would just have to know a single chorus, repeated after each verse. The Call and Response style continues to exist in contemporary culture – think of a Roman Catholic Mass or even a Christian praise band. A lot of contemporary Christian songs are in the call and response style – the band sings a verse followed by a chorus that the congregation knows and will sing along to followed by the band singing another verse, rinse and repeat. It can cause a sense of group cohesion and togetherness or something … I guess. In the case of sea shanties, the call and response was used to synchronize labor, similarly to a military cadence, or the cadence played by a marching band’s battery (or even a single snare drummer) to keep the band marching in step when they are not playing.

  • So, why didn’t the sailors just use a drum and fife, like in the Revolutionary war, or even just a non-musical vocal cadence?

    If you’ll indulge me an anecdote – I promise this is going somewhere. This is an entirely true story. I was a music major in college. They had a special floor of one dormitory where they put the first and second year music majors (most people lived off-campus their third year and beyond. While the dining commons served up a good breakfast, living your entire life under the watchful eye of the university had a slightly Orwellian feel to it).

    One night, the power went out to the entire campus. We could have behaved like normal people and just gone to sleep early, but we were music majors and music majors seldom behave like normal people. Deprived of our university-provided cable TV and internet connections, we all poured into the hallway and sat on the floor along the walls, as the string players pulled out violins/fiddles, and a percussionist pulled out a cardboard box, and they played some folk/American roots music. It sounded exactly like a scene from a period piece taking place on the American frontier in the mid-to-late 18th century. Illuminated only by the light of the battery-powered emergency lights, the rest of us clapped along to the beat. It was really a lot of fun. Then the Residence Hall Administrator came upstairs to tell us that it was quiet hours, that the playing of music was not allowed in the music dorms, and that we needed to go to bed.

    See, folk music began as the utterances of the people – just regular folks who weren’t necessarily great musicians, but would set up an upright bass, some sort of percussion, a banjo, and a fiddle on the porch on a hot summer day and play some music, because the radio wasn’t a thing just yet – they didn’t have a whole lot else to do. In fact, a common problem faced by musicologists is that decent sound recording technology just didn’t exist before a certain point, and a lot of folk songs were passed down via oral tradition. One that we do have access to is Angel Band, first published in 1860 and performed here in a 1955 recording by The Stanley Brothers (it would later gain notoriety as part of the 2000 Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where art Thou). Notice the use of call and response (or at least the verse-chorus form) even here.

    So why did the sailors use shanties rather than something else to sync their labor? Well, for one thing, they were at sea for months at a time and were probably bored as all get-out. For another thing, something participatory would involve the sailors and cause them to work harder.

  • The harmony of Wellerman is absolutely nothing like what you would find in contemporary popular music.

    Most male top-40 type artists in this day and age tend toward a tenor or high baritone voice. Even Josh Groban – a great classical/popular crossover vocalist – lives in that high-baritone/low-tenor area.

    The current branch (I guess you might call it) that is most famous on TikTok features mainly bass voices – particularly rare types of bass voices such as basso profundo and even the super-rare oktavist – both of which are low, low, low types of basses. Even the version performed by The Longest Johns (mentioned and linked to above) features a very strong basso profundo. In this regard it reminds me of the famous choral piece Spaseniye sodelal (Salvation is Created), written by Soviet composer Pavel Chesnokov and performed here by the Yale Choral Artists (who seriously put some bassi profundi to work), and maybe even the Theme from Koyaanisqatsi by minimalist composer Phillip Glass, better known to the general public as ‘The Evil Eye music’ from the TV show ‘Scrubs’.

    On the music theory front, the very first thing that jumped out at me when listening to Wellerman is that the bass and baritone (or B2 and B1 parts) are often moving around in an interval called parallel fifths. In common-practice voice leading, parallel fifths are a major no-no, so it is very rarely heard in either popular music, or traditional choral music, unless you are trying to achieve a certain affect. It was used in medieval Gregorian Chants to achieve the affect of sounding like a swarm of angry murder-hornets, but by the mid-Renaissance we had rules that prohibited singing like an angry swarm of murder-hornets.

    Finally, if you look at the chords in the sheet music of The Longest Johns’ version above, you’ll notice that while the chords in the verse are a very typical i-iv-VII for a minor song, the chorus seems to want to tonicize the relative major key of A-flat Major. Playing with the tonality of a song is by no means unheard of, but I do think that it is a piece of the puzzle.

    I would contend that the combination of heavy low bass singing, parallel fifths in the lower parts, and the playing hot-potato between the major and minor provides a very grounded, visceral, almost primitive quality to the listening experience. Indeed, a very stark, stark contrast from the highly polished and heavily produced songs by popular artists of today.

No, but seriously. Knock it off with the college music theory and tell us why this thing is popular right now.

Okay, okay. I’m getting there. Criminey. So to figure this thing out, we need to PROBE THE ZEITGEIST. We need to think about context. What is going on here and now?

  • It is January of 2021.
    • The United States Capitol was recently invaded by armed cosplayers.
    • Joe Biden sworn in as President.
    • The COVID-19 pandemic rages on, even as vaccine begins to trickle into the country at a snail’s pace.
      • Due to the Pandemic, and new, more virulent strains of the virus beginning to crop up, everybody’s life remains in an awkward spot.
      • Kids sometimes are in a physical classroom. Sometimes they are distance-learning.
      • Those of us lucky enough to still have jobs are often working from home, but many don’t have that luxury.
      • COVID restrictions are still controlled by state governments, and continue to fluctuate wildly based on a number of factors.
    • In essence, life in these United States, and many other countries, is a gosh-darn mess.

So, remember that in the dormitory, when the power went out in the mid-winter and it was dark and we were bored and we had no control over what was happening, what did we do? We turned not only to music, but a very wholesome, old-fashioned type of music that only required a few small instruments to make.

The men who originally used shanties were at sea for months at a stretch, eating horrible food, drinking disgusting booze, didn’t know if they would live or die from day to day, and had no control over their own lives, fates, and destinies.

Right now, most people are cooped up in their homes. They don’t know how their lives will be affected from one week to another. They can’t go out with their friends. They have no control of the COVID restrictions put upon them. And to whom do they turn? The music nerds, who are serving up what is a very novel sounding, yet catchy song to modern ears.

It could be like Adam said – a fleeting moment of wholesomeness on TikTok. I would argue that it is more of a method of coping with a random and chaotic world through a collaborative medium, using a fun and very old musical style.

If you have comments on this blog article, or suggestions about other things I should write about, drop them in the box below or shoot me an email (found on the ‘contact’ page).

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