SEARSPORT, Maine — The humble sea shanty is having a moment, with people around the world discovering the fun that can be had with just a voice and a catchy tune.
And that makes Bennett Konesni of Belfast very happy. The 38-year-old farmer and musician is an expert on worksongs, a robust musical genre that includes sea shanties and was important in Maine in the 19th century. He is dedicated to sharing his love of those songs with as many people as he can. When Konesni learned last week that TikTok, the video-sharing social networking app, was suddenly blowing up with sea shanties, he was thrilled.
“To have the entire universe suddenly be interested in sea shanties is exciting and fun,” he said. “We kind of unlocked a way to recreate in pandemic times a thing that happens all the time in folk music, which is that people add their own voice to a centuries-old dialogue between singers.”
On TikTok, the shanty craze appears to have begun when a Scottish postman and singer, Nathan Evans, began to share traditional songs last year. His version of “The Wellerman,” an epic, and very catchy song about whaling in New Zealand, which likely was written by a teenage sailor in the 1830s, went viral after he shared it at the end of December. So far, it’s garnered nearly 7 million views, and has inspired a raft of folks to add their voices to his through TikTok’s duet feature.
The sudden popularity of the old-fashioned shanty makes a lot of sense to Konesni, who said that the genre fits the moment we are living in right now. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people around the world have been living in more isolated ways for nearly a year, with work and all other parts of life harder than they were before.
“It’s like being on a ship,” he said. “You’ve got months and months of social isolation, maybe with just a few other people … They’ve got to stay motivated. They’ve got to find ways to stay psychologically engaged.”
Bennett Konesni of Belfast stands next to a capstan at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport with his copy of Joanna Colcord’s “Roll and Go” as he talks about the rising popularity of sea shanties on TikTok during the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN
One way was to sing together. As crews hauled sails, pulled lines, worked to hunt and process whales, they raised their voices in harmony. It kept them in rhythm and, no doubt, raised spirits, according to Cipperly Good, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport.
“That call and response definitely brings people together,” she said of shanties. “It’s a way to harmonize and work together for a common purpose. And it’s catchy, and encourages group participation. Its whole point is to have people work as one.”
And when crews were tasked with difficult or boring jobs, such as hauling up the anchor by walking around a capstan, the songs really helped.
“It’s something that gives people the rhythm to move in sync and keep walking, and entertain them, too,” she said.
Mainers who sailed around the world on merchant, fishing and whaling ships — many of which were built in the state’s boatbuilding cities and towns — would have sung the shanties. And we know of many shanties today because of the work of another Mainer, Joanna Colcord, a Searsport ship captain’s daughter who was born at sea in 1882.
“She grew up on her dad’s ship, hearing all these songs,” Good said.
Colcord documented the songs, and published “Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen” in 1924.
Bennett Konesni of Belfast with his copy of Joanna Colcord’s “Roll and Go” as he talks about the rising popularity of sea shanties on TikTok during the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN
“She’s preserving a lost art,” Good said.
Konesni has a copy of the book, which he said he considers one of his treasures.
“The reason why this is such a big moment for Maine, that sea shanties are back and kids are into sea shanties, is because we have right here in Penobscot Bay one of the oldest and best collections of sea shanties in the world,” he said. “Written down just as they were dying out.”
Konesni isn’t shy about singing — and sometimes bellowing — songs from the book. He has big plans to do more with them, too. He wants to record all the songs in Colcord’s book with the Worksong Community Chorus, a secular choir he started in 2019. The group has been on hiatus since the pandemic began, but he hopes to restart it this summer. In the chorus, people sing together while working on the farms, forests and boats, places where the songs began.
“We take the songs from ‘Roll and Go’ and bring them back to life on the boat,” Konesni said. “The main thing is that people have a chance to raise their voice, and sing in a way that’s not like church or in a choir … The emphasis is on fun. The whole idea is to transform the suffering of work into something that’s more like play.”
That’s something that the sailors of the Golden Age of Sail, the time between the 1700s and 1900, would recognize, Good said. They were on ships, and the shanties of 2021 are being shared on social media, but a lot of the motivations for singing shanties and other work songs likely are not that different.
“We just want to raise our voices together and shout into the world,” she said. “It’s not about being pretty, and harmonizing, although you can do that. It’s more about just being raucous and singing your lungs out. I think it’s therapeutic, in a way. And they’re meant to be screamed 6 feet away from each other.”