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Gloucester sea shanty master is ‘keeping the tradition alive’ on TikTok

Shanties are work songs," says musician and educator David Coffin. "Sailors onboard had to work together to get any job done."
Shanties are work songs," says musician and educator David Coffin. "Sailors onboard had to work together to get any job done."Courtesy David Coffin

Welcome to digital life in 2021. We’re all about mittens and sea shanties now.

While Bernie’s mittens get endlessly memed, a 26-year-old Scotsman named Nathan Evans set off a TikTok #seashanty craze late last month when he posted a booming rendition of the 19th-century tune “Soon May The Wellerman Come.” Some 1.6 billion #shanty (or #chantey) posts now flood the platform, while Evans has landed a record deal.

The sea shanty trend is “phenomenal for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is keeping the tradition alive,” said Gloucester shanty master David Coffin, 60, in an interview this week. Coffin has performed throughout New England since 1980, gigging everywhere from maritime festivals to schools and museums. Since 2014, he’s been an artist-in-residence at Revels in Cambridge. The baritone stars as a Greek chorus, of sorts, on Amazon Prime’s Maine-set “Blow the Man Down.” Actually, he’s the first person you see in the indie thriller/dark comedy.

Ironically, he got that gig because of the quirks of the Internet. A video of his rousing street performance of “Roll the Old Chariot” at the 2010 Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival landed on the front page of Reddit years after the event, catching the filmmakers’ attention. That video has since logged nearly 4.5 million views.

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More recently, Coffin shared his full version of “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” And now, thanks to another oddity of the Internet, Coffin finds himself on TikTok, where his “Rolling Down to Maui” video has earned some 46,000 likes since he joined the platform a little more than a week ago.

Find Gloucester’s shantyman on TikTok @chanteyman. We caught up with him by phone this week to talk music, history, whaling ... and, yup, his cannibalized ancestor.

Q. What do you make of the whole TikTok sea shanty craze?

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A. It’s creating something that’s really important right now when everyone is locked away in their homes — a sense of connection and community through music. If you can’t sing together live, let’s sing together online and create music and share it with people you’ve never met. How cool is that?

Q. Were you on TikTok before or did you join because of the trend?

A. I was aware of the word “TikTok” [but] clueless. I am now nine days in. [I’ve posted] songs that younger people may not be aware of. I’m learning how to reach people on this platform. I have a reputation as a shanty singer primarily because of one YouTube video that went viral. People respond to it, and it’s not that the singing is so fabulous — they’re responding to the energy, and that sense of connection. That’s what these songs are all about. That’s what a sea shanty is by nature.

Q. And not all maritime songs are shanties, correct?

A. Sea shanties are a specific genre under that [maritime] umbrella. Shanties are work songs. Sailors on board had to work together to get any job done. So the shantymen would sing a song that fit the rhythm of the job. The men would sing on the chorus; that took their minds off the drudgery of the work, while also establishing the rhythm, so they’d know when to haul, pull, push, heave. Whatever the job was, there was a song for that job; there was a rhythm for that job. So there’s a long-haul shanty; there’s a short-haul shanty; a stamping shanty; a pumping shanty.

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Q. What category is “Wellerman”?

A. That’s actually not a sea shanty. That’s the irony of this whole thing. “Soon May the Wellerman Come” is a ballad from New Zealand. It’s a reference to the Weller brothers. They had a supply company; they would supply the whaling ships.

Q. Your ancestors were whalers?

A. Whalers, captains, innkeepers. Did you ever see or read “In the Heart of the Sea?” They ate one of my ancestors. Owen Coffin drew the short-straw when they resorted to cannibalism.

Q. Oh my God!

A. I didn’t know any of this family history until I [got into maritime music].

Q. And how did you find out about the shanty trend on TikTok?

A. My e-mail, every platform of communication, started blowing up. Now I’m on TikTok. I post things a couple times a day. What I enjoy are reading the comments. There was a mom who said, “You’ve hooked my daughters on singing sea shanties, because they found you on TikTok and that’s their platform.” I’ve had e-mails from TikTok [viewers who] contact me saying, “Your songs have [helped me].” Serious stuff. Some people look at TikTok and think: It’s just a little faddish thing. But there’s meaning in there. You can uplift people. Because you can’t not sing on a sea shanty. It’s infectious.

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Learn more at http://davidcoffin.com.

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.