It's odd, but the online sea shanty community has managed to do something that has continued to elude most nations, including ours. It has given individual people a place to be heard and included.
As we delicately transfer power from one presidential administration to another, a few things about the state of our nation become clear. The rancor and derision we've seen over the past year isn't the product of the coronavirus, and it didn't engulf our country overnight. While the unique challenges brought to us by the global pandemic may have intensified the tides, divisive and even violent currents have been eroding the shores of our civil society for decades. People on all sides of every issue offer an impressive range of explanations for why we are where we are and how we got here. But nobody really seems to have a compelling answer for what we can -- and should -- do about it.
But while tempers flared and the barriers of civil discourse and spirited debate were being breached at the U.S. Capitol, there were also a few reports of an unexpected phenomenon that had been unfolding on Tik Tok: the singing of 19th-century sea shanties. You read that right -- sea shanties.
It's not unusual for random videos to "go viral" on the Chinese-owned video-sharing social media platform. But the sea shanty trend took everyone by surprise. Who knew that traditional tunes like "The Wellerman," "Leave Her, Johnny," and "Drunken Sailor" could ever be popular again? Evidently, there's a large number of people who still appreciate having a supply of sugar, tea, and rum and many who still haven't settled on a satisfactory answer to the question, "What shall we do with a drunken sailor?"
But seriously, there is something to be learned from how the sea shanty craze has unfolded and the fact that it has produced some amazingly beautiful (albeit you-will-never-get-this-song-out-of-your-head) music just about everyone can enjoy.
It started when one Scottish postman and folk singer posted a rousing personal rendition of a New Zealand whaling song, and other singers added to it. Layers of harmony, fiddles, drums, all kinds of mixes and remixes emerged as more and more people recorded themselves singing along. There are countless sea shanty videos on TikTok now, some of which have grown virtual choirs of over 500 voices. Listeners chose to be participants. Young and old, first soprano to contrabass, all kinds of instrumentalists from around the globe have joined the throng of people from every race and culture who have created something as spectacular as it is innocuous.
It's odd, but the online sea shanty community has managed to do something that has continued to elude most nations, including ours. It has given individual people a place to be heard and included. It has offered a platform for every voice to contribute to something larger than a solo performance. It has built a community and shown that unity is possible -- and beautiful -- if we're singing the same song.
And as they say, that's the rub. In order to create unity or even promote it, we've got to be singing the same song. That's where, I think, the Church has a unique role to play. Christian faith has outlived all the forces that have threatened to destroy it and found ways to survive and thrive in some of the most difficult times. How? Because, as St. Augustine said, "We are an Easter people, and 'alleluia' is our song."
Christians have sung God's praise across the centuries in Roman arenas, monastery cloisters, and mission vessels, in ancient cities and on vast frontiers. The faith Jesus handed down to us through the apostles has echoed in every place and time because it has continued to be sung in human hearts. The song that began with the Blessed Virgin Mary's fiat is one that we can listen to or choose to join. The tune may not be quite as catchy as a sea shanty, but the voices it brings together are unified and unifying, and the community it forms is deeper and more lasting than any trend.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.