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:

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)


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)


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)


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)


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


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.







Shall We Pray?


On any given day, my Facebook feed usually includes one or two prayer requests for sick or injured people. Or for a ridiculously premature infant. Or for someone on his death bed.

I can mostly ignore these random posts. But big events like the tornadoes and flooding of the past weekend bring on an avalanche of prayer requests. These in turn provoke me to rant. Hence, the following.

“Pray for Garland/Rowlett, Texas,” one post says. Pray for what? For God to wave a magic wand and restore everything to its condition before that big funnel cloud did its work? For all those newly homeless people to feel better about being homeless?

Everyone wants prayer, but exactly what the prayer is supposed to accomplish remains obscure.

Survivors of disasters often say God is good. It’s a blessing, they say. It could have been worse. Invariably there’s a wild-haired lady on the TV news saying “Praise God” even though her house is now a mile-long debris pile. None of this makes sense.

One must question the logic of thinking that the same God who invented cancer would somehow change His Mind and heal someone’s cancer because of prayer. If God has any power to answer prayers, God also has power to keep bad stuff from happening in the first place. What kind of ‘merciful’ God sits back, watches a tornado do its damage, then ‘hears’ prayers and decides what He’ll do to make it all better?

The common belief among the prayerful is that God watches over everything and when bad shit starts to happen, He picks and chooses who will die, who will be maimed for life, and whose house will be destroyed. One wonders about God’s criteria—are the ones who die bad people who need to be punished? If you’re not quite so bad, you only lose your house and, in a true miracle of God’s kindness, find that family photo in the mud?

If you’re so good that God spares you from harm, do you pray to thank Him for sparing you while smugly noting (privately) that you were spared when those folks next door got what they had coming?

Of course Satan comes into the picture. Satan makes all the bad stuff happen. God chases around after Satan trying to fix the damage. People who believe stuff like this actually operate vehicles on our highways. Many of them, against all odds, use computers.

You would think that with the advancement of science, we would no longer cling to such prehistoric beliefs. After all, we know that the mixing of cold and warm air, not Satan, causes tornadoes. We know our bodies are the result of genetics. We carry around devices that allow us to speak with anyone in the world and which convey visual and auditory media of any and all kind. We travel in jets, automobiles, and rocket ships. We explore the sea floor, transplant hearts, livers, and corneas, and watch brain parts light up on MRI screens.

We not only expect to use the latest gadget and demand ever higher Internet speed but require access to the latest in medical technology in order to enhance our erections and save our lives. We want what science (that godless extension of Satan himself ) can give us as long as it makes our work easier and our life expectancy longer. Advanced technology suffers no dependence on God, thank God, yet at the same time John Doe is about to undergo open heart surgery, Nancy Doe is asking all her friends for prayers.

Hedge the bet, then.

At least most of us no longer find it useful to cut the throat of a white goat before the races begin in order to ensure our horse wins. Or gut pigs to examine their entrails before we decide whether to take a vacation. And presumably no one is tossing virgins into bottomless pits so that the world will continue turning. Prayer and the occasional genuflect evidently now suffice in place of all those older more difficult methods of getting God to do what we want.

Prayer is the answer to everything. Football games. Our meals. The start of Congress or the school day. We’re infected with an irrational idea that prayer matters.

How long this nonsensical prehistoric behavior might continue, no one can say. After all, we have no method of disproving the possible intervention of a supernatural being. Whatever It is, It might actually be present on the fifty-yard line. That Mighty Hand might guide a hail-Mary pass, which is, not so coincidentally, a reference to prayer.

Unfortunately, historical evidence suggests otherwise.

This is the same God who, according to His own literature, killed off every single living soul on the planet except Noah’s family. The same God who sat back as blood-soaked centuries scrolled by while the Crusades, Inquisition, and the decimation of millions of indigenous people were carried out in His holy name.

But set all that aside because, well, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Why is it so incomprehensible to so many people that God does not and cannot possibly monitor the thoughts, acts, and prayers of all seven billion of us? Oh, sure, it was fine when there were thirty five of us in our tribal encampment. God could hear us then. But now? This is why we must align ourselves with a particular group who finds particular favor in God’s eyes.

Religion, for example. If we belong to the right religion instead of all those other ‘wrong’ religions, God will reward us with hearing our prayers and bestowing a glorious afterlife. Nanner-nanner to all those other infidels.

If this life sucks, well, we’ve been warned about the vale of tears as per Job’s experience in the Old Testament. All that suffering is our punishment for what happened thousands of years ago when Eve learned things God didn’t want her to learn. Why God put the apple there in front of her is just another one of His little tricksy secrets.

To get in good with God, a person must also choose the correct political party. If we’re Republican, we’re much closer to having God grant our prayerful wishes because God knows that Democrats are all lewd, blasphemous commies. And so forth.

Even within the religious Republican ranks, however, one must choose the right candidates and belong to the right branch of the Christian faith. Which one is right depends on who you ask. For those in the Church of Christ, for example, no one but their fellow adherents will see Heaven. Ask any Protestant and you’ll likely find out that all Catholics are going straight to hell. Likewise, ask any Catholic and you’ll find out that anyone not a Catholic is going to hell.

Not to mention what Christians think of Muslims. Or what Muslims think of everyone who doesn’t follow Islam. I admit I’m not clear on the Jewish belief about other faiths, but I suspect it tends toward the same narrow beliefs. Which explains why Israel continues to grab ever more Palestinian lands—“God gave that land to me.”

All of which ignores Buddhists, Confucionists, and Zoroastrianists, to name just three of the multitudinous non-Abrahamist religions.

So what does God think of all this? God only knows. But one thing I’m fairly sure of is that God doesn’t look down from Mount Olympus and tweak the weather to suit His agenda. He doesn’t decide that because gays marry, Texas should be plagued with floods. He doesn’t send his Almighty Wrath to incinerate the American West because Miley Cyrus twerks.

He doesn’t have millions of angels listening to all those prayers wafting up from this planet and prioritizing which ones to ignore. He, if He exists, can’t be a He. He can’t even be a physical entity that might have gender. He would be Unimaginable.

I think the power of prayer, if any, lies solely in its ability to focus the prayerful person’s attention on one thought and within that moment, assure the praying person that he/she has done all he/she could toward a problem over which he/she has no control. Group prayer, like meditation, perhaps has the potential to direct psychic energy toward a particular thought or idea. Which is yet another reason why sending prayers to Unimaginable simply detours any possible useful result of the effort.

Now, on the other hand, if the person is standing there praying for God to solve a problem over which he/she does have control, then God should smite him/her on the spot. Or at least send a tornado their way.