The main feature of this week’s parashah (Beshallach) is Shirat haYam. Conventionally translated as ‘Song at the Sea’, there is another, perhaps more timely translation as well for Shirat haYam: ‘sea shanty’.
2020/1 has had many strange surprises in store, but perhaps the strangest is the sudden and extreme popularity of sea shanties. Yes, sea shanties. For those who don’t have the privilege/punishment of being on TikTok, 2021 began with the unlikely viral success of Nathan Evans, a 26 year old Scottish postie, whose TikTok video of himself singing the 19th century New Zealander sea shanty ‘The Wellerman’ nearly broke the internet.
Two weeks after the story really first broke, Evans has a record deal, and his version of ‘The Wellerman’ has been copied and shared millions of times. The logistics of how such a strange thing happened are explained more here, but I don’t think it actually requires much explanation for us.
Like the original Shirat haYam (Exodus 15), sea shanties are popular because they have a simple tune, are sung a cappella, often rhyme, and because they tell a good story. To be fair, ‘The Wellerman’ is quite a banger. I dare you to listen to it all the way through and not find yourself singing it later when you least expect it! (Seriously, try it)
So too, all good folk music– which uses story, theme, and repetition to convey some aspect of a shared culture. In fact, there has been an incredible revival in Jewish folk music in recent years– and like The Wellerman and Shirat haYam, it’s appeal is obvious. If Yiddish is your thing, check out this contemporary band of Montreal millennials writings and recording traditional Yiddish folk music (it’s haunting). Or, alternatively, check out contemporary Israeli singer Nani, who is reviving medieval Ladino romances in a modern style.
There’s plenty – and much to appreciate – especially on this, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. This Shabbat, try and find a moment to appreciate the music which we have carried with us for so long, and which today, even on TikTok, still helps us to connect with our culture.
Shabbat (Shirah) Shalom,
PS. For a special treat, check out my friend and colleague, R. Yoni Dahlen singing Adon Olam to the tune of ‘The Wellerman’