M.A.P.Z #005 - Sea Shanties

M.A.P.Z #005 - Sea Shanties

Welcome to what I would call the extended digital edition of My Anarcho Pop Zine Issue #005 if My Anarcho Pop Zine wasn't an entirely digital operation anyway. 

Below you will find the uncut version of my conversation about sea shanties with Stinky and the Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River. Cut for space in the zine, I'm sure you'll find a lot to interest you in this extended interview. Some punctuation has been added and the continuity re-arranged, but otherwise it's as-written.

Sea Shanties!

A conversation with Stinky and the Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River.

Mal: How would you define the term "sea shanty"?

The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "That really depends on context and approach. Historically speaking there are several distinct kinds of sailing and working songs, but as it stands any traditional sailing song can be considered a shanty. When it comes to scholarly discussion or historical overview one can split hairs but generally speaking the distinctions between song types are irrelevant in a modern context."

Stinky: "Personally, I like to distinguish the different types of shanties for each other and enjoy understanding the history between each type and why they were used, so I would define a sea shanty as simply a working song used aboard, usually, pirate, privateer, and merchant ships."

Hmm that's interesting. of course the song that caused shanties to go viral this year, the wellerman, isn't technically a sea shanty right? 

Stinky: "Wellerman is a sea shanty, but not one the pirates most people would think of would've been singing (which is the idea that got the song viral in the first place), and was instead a whaling song of the 1800s."

So songs from different eras get conflated into one genre. 

Stinky: "I would say so."

That kind of leads into my next question - why do you think that these songs have had such popularity with a Millennial and Gen Z audience who are unfamiliar with their original context? 

The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "It's a meme. They think it's funny. It's the same sense of ironic enjoyment that was the original kernel of the nascent 4chan brony fandom. 'Oh, we're into ponies Sea Shanties, isn't that funny?'"

Stinky: "I think it stems from the idealization of namely piracy, finding the idea of being able to cut loose and have that kind of freedom appealing. This is especially prevalent among groups that see themselves as being outside of society already, such as queer people."

To me it seems like, similar to other recent trends like cottagecore, people are pining for a fictional past which really reflects the concerns and preoccupations of the modern day.

Stinky: "I agree."

The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "I think that's a possibility, but shanties don't have a -core style aesthetic and the shanty 'culture', if we're calling it that, doesn't really seem to exist in any measurable sense outside of tiktok. We're not seeing Sailorcore edits on tumblr or Seafarer aesthetic Pinterest boards. I really just think it's a meme."

Stinky: "I have seen my fair share of sailorcore edits, but that could be a niche corner I've backed myself into and I get your point."

How do you think this trend fits into the folk tradition as a whole? How has the use of the internet affected these musical traditions? 

Stinky: "I do enjoy seeing these songs being appreciated today, but the lack of historical knowledge around them kind of irks me- That's a personal problem though, someone doesn't have to know everything about something in order to enjoy it. I guess my point is that the internet has allowed a wider variety of people to come across a style of music that hasn't really been appreciate outside of a smaller niche group in the past, and I'm glad to see it."

The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "Not to go full boomer but I think the internet has had a really negative impact on folk tradition writ large. The internet has a homogenizing influence on community which is a death blow for folk music; it destroys the sense of solemnity that comes from having a tune handed down by making the experience impersonal and detached. It also almost fully eliminates the history of regional variation within tunes."

Stinky: "It has also led to more creations of modern shanties, and that falls back to if something created today could really be considered "folk", so in that sense it could overall be harmful to the understanding of what sea shanties really stand, or stood, for. What Nemo said, essentially."

The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "I'd agree with that. With a lot of genres, fresh blood and new ideas can be great things, but let's be real-how many people writing 'Modern Shanties' have ever sailed, let alone as a profession? I don't want to misrepresent myself, I certainly haven't, but I'm also not out here copping a genre to which I have nothing to add. Just look at what happened with country music and you'll get an idea of what would happen if shanties ever went properly mainstream."

It's an interesting argument. in some ways it reminds me of how the Pogues were initially rejected by Irish musicians because they were seen as foreign interlopers. Staying on that subject, if someone was interested in the original folk tradition, where would you recommend they go to learn more?
The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "Death to the BBC but they do have some solid resources about the history of the shanty. Older recordings of shanties are broadly available online and are generally far more grounded representations of the tunes that one would find today. In a pre-internet age these songs were inherited and passed along so records from that era serve as excellent glimpses into the tradition."
Stinky: "Honestly, google is a great resource. I'd recommend avoiding articles and blog posts written by major news or blog websites and the like- Its part of the writer's job to research, but not to have necessarily a very wide range of knowledge. Its also part of their job to make the truth more exciting an appealing to an audience, leading to over-exaggerating and misconceptions. I recommend finding scholarly papers and articles written by professionals in both the music field and the history field (namely, those who study the history of seafaring)."
"Or, instead of avoiding certain sources, consume absolutely every source you available to you. Cross reference and decide for yourself what's truth and what's not.
That's how I went about it, anyway."
The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "That's generally the way to go with things like this. Most libraries will also have some good books on the subject and there's a trove on JSTOR if you're willing to deal with academics (and usually a good amount of racism, considering that a lot of these pieces are quite old and the shanty is widely believed to be a product of black sailors)."
Do you think the pop culture idea of the shanty is kind of whitewashed?
The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "Beyond belief. It's not necessarily the fault of the modern audience though, the historical record of the shanty is just as appropriated and anglicized as anything else; most casual listeners would have no real way of knowing that."
 Stinky: "Oh, definitely. As with everything in history (in white-dominated cultures, anyways), white men are prioritized in a setting they weren't necessarily the most prominent in. Take a look at any piece of media about pirates, for example, and you'll find a couple of POC background characters at best."
I'm getting cowboy vibes. Many cowboys being Mexican and Black + Hollywood = Clint Eastwood stars in everything forever.
The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "The history of all working class culture is whitewashed at every turn. It's disheartening but what else is new?"
Indeed. Here's my last question. It seems a little bit ridiculous to ask this, months after the peak of the "shantytok" trend in early 2021. But do you think the popularity of sea shanties with Gen Z and Millennials is here to stay, or is it just a passing fad?
The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "I think it's a fad. In 15 years they'll be chilling in bars saying to each other 'Remember when shanties were the thing? That was crazy' and have a good laugh about it. There's always a few people who develop a genuine interest but internet fads never stay."
Stinky: "I think the peak of the interest has definitely already passed, but there will probably be people who continue to make and consume shanty-related content for a while. Trends tend to stick with some people a little longer than they're no longer popular for, but I do think it'll probably fully burn out with a little more time."
Alright, thank you both. Any final thoughts?
Stinky: "If you've developed any sort of interest in shanties, even if in passing, I highly recommend delving into the history behind them. I'm not necessarily saying become a scholar, but they're a fascinating thing to learn about if you feel so inclined."
The Inimitable Captain Nemo, Scourge of the Ohio River: "I really just want to encourage the younger crowd to poke a little deeper into not just shanties, but history in general. I feel like we've had this moment where a historical tradition hit some kind of internet popularity and I'm worried it won't click for enough people that there are all kinds of things from the past that are fun and interesting. I'd encourage readers to not miss this and to delve deeper into things that interest them, whatever it is."