As BBC Newsround explains, sea shanties are old songs traditionally sung by men at sea including sailors, fishermen, and whalers. The songs would be sung together by the whole crew, usually via lyrics that would elicit a call and response between the lead singer — the shantyman — and the crew (via Chatelaine). Sea shanties were used to help sailors keep in time with their jobs, which included pulling ropes, hoisting sails, and pumping water, as James Revell Carr, an associate professor of ethnomusicology, explained to NBC’s Today. These tunes also boosted morale, motivation, and focus so they could get their grueling jobs done.
Carr also noted that during this time sailors would have been in their late teens and early 20s, adding that they “were young people who liked to drink and party” and that something about this fact “resonates with young people now” — especially during the pandemic.
The ethnomusicologist went on to explain how “ships brought people together from lots of different backgrounds and places” who learned to cope and bond through music. “It was the one thing that they shared, culturally, and I think that’s true today,” Carr said. “You see people from all over the world really enjoying this music, and so there is something really, really special about that.”