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Sea Shanty TikTok Meme, Explained

  • January 14, 2021

The recently popularized “Soon May the Wellerman Come” — which the band the Longest Johns covered in 2018 — leaves out such naughty narratives in favor of a “Moby-Dick”-like whaling adventure. Its subject was real: the Weller brothers’ whaling company owned an outpost in Otago, New Zealand. The song lyrics feature sailors harpooning a whale and hoisting it to the ship for butchery.

“This well could have been a cutting-in shanty,” or a song that men sung while they slaughtered a whale, said Michael P. Dyer, the maritime curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

That particular task was messy; the harvesting of whale parts — oil to light lamps and use in cosmetics, baleen for whalebone corsets, tongue for food — was hard labor. The “tonguing” that is mentioned in lyrics refers to removing the tongue, the most edible part of the whale, according to Mr. Dyer.

As for the line “to bring us sugar and tea and rum,” some believe that it may refer to whaling’s part in the triangle slave trade of the Atlantic. (Accordingly, various commenters suggested that the meme had lost its charm.) Others believe the phrase refers to another ship coming to resupply the whalers on their long hunt.

“‘Wellerman’ is not really a shanty,” said David Coffin, a folk musician and music educator in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a whaling song with the beat of a shanty, he said, but its purpose is that of a ballad — to tell a story, not to help sailors keep time.

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