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Folk Songs: Sea Shanties are the sound of New England's nautical history

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Davis Dunavin
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WSHU Public Radio
Shantyman David Coffin performs on Staten Island.

Sea shanties have survived for centuries, far beyond the golden age of seafaring. A lot of them have strong ties to New England’s maritime culture, especially the culture built around the whaling industry.

And recently, sea shanties have enjoyed some renewed attention on social media. If you’re on the social media app Tiktok, you may have heard the song “Wellerman” earlier this year.

It was at the center of a sea shanty craze on TikTok, which is popular among teens and 20-somethings. Thousands of amateur and professional musicians made their own versions on the app.

"Wellerman" wasn’t originally a sea shanty. It’s technically a ballad. But Nathan Evans “shantified” his version, said shanty singer David Coffin.

“He took the rhythm of the song and held it straight, fast and hard and fast, not like a ballad,” Coffin said.

David’s not just a singer — he’s also a folk music educator. And he’s got some family history.

“In 1659, great grandaddy Tristram Coffin went out to Nantucket with his wife and nine children and bought the island for 30 pounds and 2 beaver hats,” he said.

Tristram and his family learned the art of whaling from the indigenous Wampanoag tribe.

“So the family over the years became ship captains and harpooners and innkeepers and the Coffin name on Nantucket is everywhere, everywhere,” David said.

The Coffin family helped make Nantucket one of America’s top whaling ports. In fact, only one town in America had more whaling ships: New Bedford, Massachusetts. That’s according to the Mystic Seaport Museum, in Mystic, Connecticut, a big name in shanties itself: it hosts the annual Sea Music Festival, the largest such festival in the country.

New Bedford may have the ultimate in whaling cred; it’s where Captain Ahab’s ship sets sail in Moby-Dick.

A massive blue whale skeleton hangs over the main lobby of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. A tube leads down from the skeleton into a container on the wall, to collect oil that slowly drips off the bones.

“That blue whale skeleton is going to be dripping oil for the next hundred years and it’s never gonna stop,” said curator Michael Dyer. “Those bones are full of oil.”

That oil was gold to sailors who spent weeks at a time on the ocean hunting for whales.

“You chop up the blubber of the whale, you toss it into the furnace, cook out all the oil and put it into a barrel and you’ve got a product,” Michael said.

Whale oil was used for lamps, candles, soap and other products. More than 4,000 whaling voyages set sail from New Bedford over a century and a half or so. And this was hard work. The crews were made up of strong, burly guys who had to haul ropes in unison.

“Having a rhythmic work song would keep them amused as well as focused on the job at hand made the job all that easier,” Michael said.

That’s where you get that “Heave! Ho!” refrain we still associate with sea shanties.

The whaling industry died slowly over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We found other ways to get energy — like coal. New Bedford left the whaling game in the 1920s.

“And they began putting their money, here in New Bedford, into cotton textiles,” Michael said. “As the last couple of Yankee whalers were limping out of port in 1920, there were 70 mills and they employed 100,000 people. And the fundamental economy of New Bedford shifted away from whaling.”

The U.S. banned most whaling in the '70s. Today, only Japan, Norway and Iceland still have commercial whaling. But those long-gone songs can still captivate millions.

Whalers sang them during the drudgery and isolation of long sea voyages — people on TikTok sang them during the drudgery and isolation of the pandemic. Michael said it’s no coincidence people rediscovered sea shanties at a time when we’re all starved for community connection.

“I like the idea that a sea shanty is fundamentally the definition of teamwork. You can't do it alone. You can, but it's not what it's made for. It’s made for people to do together,” he said.

There are lots of great maritime museums in the Northeast, and we didn’t have time to visit them all. New York’s South Street Seaport Museum puts on fantastic monthly shanty sings, or “chanteys,” as they’re sometimes called. And for more nautical adventures, the New Bedford Whaling Museum hosts an annual reading of Moby Dick from January 7 to 9.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.