More Than Meets the Ear

The tune is catchy and the lyrics intriguing. That was my first impression. The clip ended fairly quickly and I played it again. And again. Now I can’t get it out of my head.

Here’s the clip: https://www.reddit.com/r/JustGuysBeingDudes/comments/kzocvf/just_a_sing_along_with_the_boys/

The tune is entitled “Soon May the Wellerman Come” and is labeled a sea shanty in most media. Over the last few months, it’s become a hot item, spreading virally through several online platforms. There’s even a piece about it on Wikipedia where its origins are discussed:

“The song’s lyrics describe a whaling ship called the “Billy o’ Tea” and its hunt for a right whale. The song describes how the ship’s crew hope for a “wellerman” (an employee of the Weller brothers, who owned ships that brought provisions to New Zealand whalers) to arrive and bring them supplies of luxuries, with the chorus stating “soon may the wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.” According to the song’s listing on the website New Zealand Folk Song, “the workers at these bay-whaling stations (shore whalers) were not paid wages, they were paid in slops (ready-made clothing), spirits and tobacco.” In the whaling industry in 19th-century New Zealand, the Weller brothers owned ships that would sell provisions to whaling boats. The chorus continues with the crew singing of their hope that “one day when the tonguin’ is done we’ll take our leave and go.” “Tonguing” in this context refers to the practice of cutting strips of whale blubber to render into oil. Subsequent verses detail the captain’s determination to bring in the whale in question, even as time passes and multiple whaling boats are lost in the struggle. In the last verse, the narrator describes how the Billy o’ Tea is still locked in an ongoing struggle with the whale, with the wellerman making a “regular call” to encourage the captain and crew.[1]

An Engraving of Cramped Quarters and Leisure on a Whaling Ship circa 1850. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Whaling was one of the most dangerous pursuits among fishermen. Crews of hardy sailors endured extended sea voyages through storms and high seas before ever sighting their prey. They ventured out on wooden boats to make the kill, harpooning enormous whales that didn’t give up without  a fight. Once the whale succumbed to its injuries, the next task was to haul it to land where the sailors dissected the massive marine mammals mostly to render their blubber into whale oil which, at the time, served as an important fuel for oil lamps.

“In the days before the discovery of petroleum, whale oil supplied the fuel for the lamps that illuminated the nights in American homes. In addition, the whale was the source of a boney substance called baleen used in women’s corsets, hairbrushes, buggy whips, collar stays and various other products.”[2]

The practice of whaling nearly destroyed several species of whales including the one mentioned in the song, the ‘right’ whale.[3] Prior to whaling in the southern seas, whalers had nearly exterminated northern varieties that existed closer to places the British, American, and other whaling ships called home. Wives were left to fend for themselves for months on end while their husbands rode the high seas in search of nature’s bounty, and the men themselves spent long hours on deck, tending to the business of sailing a ship while watching the waters for signs of whales.

The songs men created in those circumstances reflected the nature of their lives. The lyrics of Wellerman revealed those circumstances – waiting for ‘sugar, tea, and rum’ when suddenly a right whale is spotted.

There once was a ship that put to sea
And the name of that ship was the Billy o’ Tea
The winds blew hard, her bow dipped down
Blow, me bully boys, blow (huh)

Chorus

Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguing’ is done
We’ll take our leave and go

She had not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore
The captain called all hands and swore
He’d take that whale in tow (huh)

Chorus

Before the boat had hit the water
The whale’s tail came up and caught her
All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
When she dived down below (huh)

Chorus

Men tossed overboard by a whale while hunting, engraving from L’album, giornale letterario e di belle arti, Saturday, August 22, 1835, Year 2.

No line was cut, no whale was freed
An’ the captain’s mind was not on greed
But he belonged to the Whaleman’s creed
She took that ship in tow (huh)

Chorus

For forty days or even more (ooh)
The line went slack then tight once more
All boats were lost, there were only four
And still that whale did go

Chorus

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

Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguing’ is done
We’ll take our leave and go

Since its apparent origin circa 1850-1860, the Wellerman song has enjoyed multiple reincarnations not only as a sea shanty but also as a folk ballad. Its most recent popularity began with an a capella version recorded in 2018 by The Longest Johns, a British group. The recording went viral on TikTok in 2020.[4]

In late January 2021, a version by Scottish musician Nathan Evans brought in a multitude of contributors lending their voices to the mix, which is the version I heard first. I like it. I think I mentioned that.

But why? A lifetime of exposure to and participation in music has not prepared me for how this piece resonates with me. It’s emotional. It haunts me. And I detest the wasteful cruel practice of slaughtering whales which continues today in some parts of the world.

As I pondered the unexpected appeal of the song, I considered its various elements. The rhythm is fast paced and evocative of songs so typical of human endeavors where the song’s beat matches the movement of the labor. You know, like marching to war.

Then I considered the melody and harmonies, rich with folk ballad nuances meant to evoke tender feelings and, conversely, a reflection of those feelings. I even considered the minor intervals involved here and there and how these particular harmonics speak of sadness and darkness. There is an underlying fatalism in the song, that we do what we must despite the risks.

One explanation for the popularity makes the connection to the current pandemic, such as an article in The Guardian which concludes:

“My guess is that the Covid lockdowns have put millions of young [people] into a similar situation that young whalers were in 200 years ago: confined for the foreseeable future, often far from home, running out of necessities, always in risk of sudden death, and spending long hours with no communal activities to cheer them up.”[5]

I agree that must be a factor, but I’m not young. Surely that’s not all there is behind this phenomenon.

Then it slowly dawned on me. Like so many works of art, the song speaks to something greater than its apparent subject. A metaphor if you will, akin to the appeal of Moby Dick.

The Wellerman is a cautionary tale, a philosophical statement on the human condition, that we prepare ourselves to succeed at the pursuit we believe most likely to provide what we need to live. As we labor in pursuit of our prize, we seek relief in “sugar and tea and rum.” Finally we spot it. Harpoon it. Make it ours.

But instead of taking the prize, we belatedly realize it owns us, drags us interminably across vast seas, the days and years of our lives.

Underneath our conscious minds, we understand the song’s message. Its meaning addresses our heart, informs our quest for the meaning of life. There’s a resignation here, that we will go out again and again, risking everything, in the hope of seizing the prize that will make it all worthwhile. In the end, it is our lives we have paid.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soon_May_the_Wellerman_Come

[2] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/whaling.htm

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_right_whale

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KO7cofMJH0

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/15/shantytok-how-a-19th-century-seafaring-epic-inspired-a-covid-generation

2 Comments

  1. Isn’t it funny how so much of whaling culture still resonates for us today. From the whaling shanties to “Moby-Dick”, even those of us who would like to see commercial whaling end forever still find value in the cultural artifacts of the practice.

    Reply

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