“In the darkness of the streets, as the last of the fireworks detonated and the last of the bottles were downed and all the veterans started stumbling their way back to the encampments or to their inns and hotels or to the rooms of the industrious comfort-givers, a low, haunting sound droned out beneath the arches. The sound had melody, and as it snaked its way along High Street, words could be distinguished within its ghostly bellows.

O! Santianna gained the day

Away, Santianna!

Napoleon of the West, they say

Along the plains of Mexico!

So heave her up and away we’ll go

Away, Santianna!

Heave her up and away we’ll go

Along the plains of Mexico!

       Behind the sound came a motley tribe of old men with leathery skin and white beards. They all wore uniforms of pale, sky blue, some with gold epaulettes, some with black caps, some with bicorn hats and plumes of feathers that had seen better days. Any of the GAR veterans who remained on the streets dutifully moved out of their way, for past experiences had proven these men to be most irritable and capable brawlers. As they marched, liquored up for sure but straight as arrows, they intoned their melancholy tribute to a fallen foe.

He gained the day at Molly-Del-Rey

Away Santianna!

And General Taylor ran away

Along the plains of Mexico!

So heave her up and away we’ll go

Away, Santianna!

Heave her up and away we’ll go

Along the plains of Mexico!”

 

In this section of Arch City, a novel I’m currently writing which centers on the Grand Army of the Republic reunion of 1888 in Columbus, I wanted a striking way to introduce the veterans of the Mexican War. The Grand Army of the Republic was a massive fraternal organization for Union veterans of the Civil War, but I had read in newspaper accounts of the Grand Army reunion that there were some elderly Mexican War veterans present for the 1888 celebrations, as they had seen combat in both conflicts. I developed the notion that this diminishing cohort of vets would be harder, tougher, more arrogant men who looked down on the relatively young Civil War veterans, always trying to brawl with them and steal away their women. Once I had that idea, I wanted a way to introduce them—some sort of battle cry that would strike fear into the rest of the veterans who heard it approaching.

The solution, of course, was a sea shanty, and so I’m so happy to see the online world has finally learned the value of shanties.

I will waste exactly one sentence on my joy at finally getting to be the guy who obnoxiously says he has loved this music for years—particularly the Longest Johns, the English band responsible for one of the more popular versions of Wellerman, which seems to be the big hit on #shantytok (they had a fantastic album come out in 2020, check it out!) I don’t have a Tik Tok so I don’t quite understand how this happened, but somehow, in just the last week, sea shanties suddenly became popular online and I feel as if my time has come.

The shanty “Santianna” was a natural choice for my Mexican War veterans to sing as they march up High Street, as it celebrates the Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who led Mexico against the American invasion in the late 1840s. The original lyrics of the song even attempt to boost Santa Anna’s military reputation, telling of how he won battles he actually lost. I liked the idea that the Mexican War veterans would sing the praises of their vanquished enemy, as if to remind everyone around them how tough they are.

Santianna, like most sea shanties, is also a haunting song and as I listened to The Longest Johns’ performance, I loved the idea of what it would sound like echoing off the brick buildings of High Street late at night.

So I do, occasionally, use shanties to set the atmosphere of what I’m writing, but mostly I use them because I like them. I’ll often tell people I like shanties because they’re the only kind of song I can sing—they’re simplistic, repetitive, made to be song by rough, untrained voices. I imagine the genre’s newfound popularity—however brief it may prove to be—has a lot to do with how easy shanties are to participate in.

But if I might offer one other point on which to sell the genre, it’s that sea shanties, like the sea itself, can be equal parts beautiful, weird, and horrific.

The Wellerman is a perfect example of how shanties can dip into almost weird horror territory—a whaling ship harpoons a right whale, which then proceeds to drag the ship and crew on an apparently never-ending voyage;

As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on
The line’s not cut and the whale’s not gone
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the Captain, crew, and all…

The only hope the sailors seem to have in this bizarre situation is the coming of the Wellerman—that is, the provisions from the Weller Brothers’ shipping company. At no point do the whalers think to give up the hunt for this demonic whale with supernatural stamina, deciding to remain in maritime purgatory with only the promise of sugar, tea and rum to encourage them.

This is also why I humbly propose Barrett’s Privateers as the next shanty sensation. Written by the incomparable Stan Rogers, Barrett’s Privateers is fun, addictive, and macabre. It tells the story of the Antelope, a doomed Canadian warship that sets out to pillage American merchant ships during the Revolutionary War and finds only destruction.

The lyrics describe the ship as hopelessly defective—“she’d a list to the port and her sails in rags”—the crew is tragically misled—“we’d fire no guns, shed no tears—and the violence of ocean combat is vivid—“Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs and the main truck carried off both me legs!” My favorite part of the song is how the narrator describes the naive patriotism of the Antelope’s crew, setting sail “on the King’s birthday,” ultimately meeting violent destruction in the service of a mad, distant tyrant.

It’s a beautiful song.

Now, obviously I don’t expect the shanty trend to continue much longer (if anything, I give it a week before we have thinkpieces explaining why the new popularity of sea shanties is actually some kind of moral failing). But for this brief, shining moment, I want to welcome all of you to this newfound appreciation of the beauty and bizarre horror of maritime life. To paraphrase the words of Chris Ryan in his immortal Grantland piece “The Sea Is Dope,” “Go buy a cable-knit sweater and start affecting a bizarre Nantucket accent. Start measuring distance in nautical miles and talking about speed in terms of knots. [2021] is going to be the season of the sea. I’ll see you on the water.”