Dr Adrian York, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music Performance, wrote an article for The Conversation about the TikTok phenomenon “ShantyTok” and the possible references to slavery in the song Soon May the Wellerman Come. 

Adrian York

In the article, Dr York wrote about the global interest in the phenomenon when a video of a postman singing the 19th-century shanty Soon May the Wellerman Come went viral on TikTok. 

Discussing whether the song is even a shanty at all, he wrote: “Shanties show the clear influence of the African-American tradition of work-songs…This practice was also adopted by merchant sailors when performing specific tasks on sailing vessels, such as pulling ropes and hosting anchors.”

He added: “Whaling songs, on the other hand, seem to have emerged out of the shanty tradition with the addition of a folk-ballad narrative structure. Wellerman shares many characteristics of the shanty…However, the song also has six verses that tell the tale of a 40-day whaling expedition by a ship named the Billy of Tea and its crew’s struggles to land a particularly fractious whale.”

Talking about the potential references to slavery in the song, Dr York wrote: “The chorus lyric begins: “Soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.” These were products that were brought back from what was known as “the triangular trade”, with enslaved Africans having been sold to work on plantations in North America, and the Caribbean and the commodities being brought back on the return leg.”

He added: “There has been some debate on social media about the “problematic” nature of these references. But it is apparent from an analysis of the lyrics that the song is neither a post-colonial type of critique nor an embrace of the exploitation of indigenous peoples or the slave trade. It can be seen as a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom “sugar and tea and rum” provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.”

Read the full article on The Conversation’s website.

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