As a marine biologist who learned to sing many of these songs to pass time on research vessels while honoring maritime traditions, I’ve loved watching this style of music spill all over my social media feeds, letting a new generation experience them. (Watch this man’s skepticism quickly fade to joy as he listens to Wellerman and tell me it’s not one of the purest things you’ve ever seen).
However, reading people’s explanations of why Sea Shanties are The Next Big Thing has made me realize something important: I didn’t know as much of the history of this style of music as I thought I did, and I’m not alone—much of the information contained in the articles I linked to above is oversimplified or even incorrect (Wellerman is a maritime song, but isn’t really a sea shanty, for one egregious example). As I began to ask around, I realized that there isn’t a single authoritative and thorough article about the history and culture of the sea shanty written for lay audiences anywhere on Al Gore’s internet. So I decided to dig into the literature, speak to experts, and write one myself. I hope you enjoy it!
Most people from oyster-producing regions like the Chesapeake can attest to the fact that oysters are important the the social fabric of the community. In many towns that date back to the colonial era, oyster shells literally line Main Street and form the foundation of the town. In others, they form the basis of a modern-day bar scene boasting of “merroir” of the oysters alongside terroir of the wine. When the ecosystem around these kinds of places changes (think warming waters, acidified waters, introduced species who also love oysters), the resource underpinning this aspect of culture and heritage can be threatened. What does that mean for the humans so connected to the briny bivalve?
Historic Baltimore Shucking House. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library
Today is Columbus day in the US, and so I technically have a day off from teaching. However, despite a day of alleged freedom (I still have a stack of grading to do) the fact that we get a holiday to celebrate Columbus galls me. Firstly, because he was responsible for mass enslavement of indigenous people (over 1000 in just one round up, of which 550 were sent to Spain, with about 40% dying en route), sending an estimated 5000 Taino, Arawak and other indigenous peoples to Europe. His treatment of these enslaved people was barbaric – they were forced to bring him gold and failure to do so led to mass amputations and death. An estimated quarter of a million indigenous people died in Haiti alone due to resisting Columbus’ Governorship of Hispaniola, and many more died from diseases he and his crew introduced to the Caribbean.
However, secondly, he doesn’t deserve recognition for discovering North America. He never set foot on the North American continent*. If we should be recognizing someone from this era, it would be John Cabot.