The Billy O’Tea

By Cordelia Fitzgerald (Rated G)

The year: 2020. The look: black and white, a man singing his heart out and beating on a guitar. The man: Nathan Evans. Pandemic aside, what is the universal soul-tugging attraction of a man harmonizing with himself singing, of all things, sea shanties? Having everything shut down and nothing to do is, of course, a ripe environment for something to go viral, but this was different. These short videos sparked a movement – suddenly everyone was singing sea shanties, and there were remixes and collaborations and new groups. And Nathan Evans sat and sang an ancient work chant.

Was it the singer, or the song? Perhaps it was both. The singer, undoubtedly deep of voice (not to mention of accent) and musically talented, fit the vision of a mariner of old by accent, dress, and yes, scowl. He smacked of the essence of unapologetic masculinity. In these times, the idea of masculinity has been watered down at best and degraded at worst. It has been labeled “toxic” and “sexist” and denigrated to an inferior trait. It has been toppled from the pedestal of regard where it belongs – right alongside femininity. Perhaps it wasn’t Nate’s intention (may I call you Nate? Thank you!) to embody this attribute, yet he does. He provides us with a song handed down through generations of men as they worked at their sweaty and cold and physical jobs, joining their voices together that their bodies might move in unison, a brotherhood of working men.

This camaraderie holds true in modern times, and is picked up by those suffering the same deprivations world around. The loss of social outlets, close contact with friends, hobbies, jobs, lives, and pursuits, while quite different from a long sea voyage, still primes the world to be captivated by a composition made to bring people together. Can you imagine a sailor straight from Captains Courageous, say, laughing at the diverse world connecting over a commonplace ditty that he hears every time they weigh anchor? Yet the very task of unification that these tunes grew from continues its work among its modern pandemic-bound subjects.

This could be explained by the universal nature of music. It was not always as it is today, where we look for talent and yield to embarrassment, “leaving it to the professionals.” This situation is not so modern; in the early 20th century, Chesterton wrote of men who once “sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better.” And were we not better off singing together? What matters talent? Is not music a perfect way to connect at a human level, the blending of voices fostering community rather than a solo mindset? I speak here, of course, not of songs that are made to showcase a single singer, but of communal ones like shanties and folk songs.

These, to muse generally on the broader genre of folk songs, are differentiated from solos and popular hits primarily by their theme, or at least it seems so to me. Almost every song shares a message that can be appreciated by most people, but folk songs present simple, raw themes that are universally applicable. “Leave Her, Johnny,” for example, while a practical cadence for pumping, reveals discontent with the conditions of a ship. It combines the longing for a better condition with knuckling down to present work. This is indeed the condition common to humanity: to strive ever to improve our circumstances while not forgetting the present task.

We have this to thank last year for, that our race (the human one) has been reminded of the simple things as embodied in sea shanties. We can take this theme and rediscover the beauty in true masculinity, the unity of humanity, and particularly the idea that improving our lot comes with recognizing the issues of our time while not neglecting the duties at hand. Point out the flaws in the system, by all means, but don’t leave the ship until you’ve found a new one to board.

For examples of the new revival, check out Nathan Evans’ original TikTok or channel. For an example of a diverse assortment of pre-pandemic folk music and shanties, see the group “Coda” on YouTube.

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