Posted by Alex Turner 28 January 2022
In a time of unusual occurrences, possibly one of the most unexpected things to happen in 2021 was the few weeks at the start of the year when the internet was suddenly filled with videos of a 19th century whaling song. Wellerman, a song written in the 1840s off the coast of New Zealand and given fresh life by 21st century Bristolians The Longest Johns, was the breakout hit of the ShantyTok phenomenon.
In and among the thousands of people contributing their own versions, The Longest Johns’ acapella version rode the crest of the wave into the UK top 40, and at one point was among the 200 most streamed songs in America. With shanties and forebitters possibly more popular now than at any time since the arrival of steam power, the Bristol quartet are now making the most of this new found enthusiasm for songs of the sea.
We spoke to the band ahead of the release of their fourth album, Smoke and Oakum:
There’s always a little bit of potential adaption when we first come to a song. Many have countless verses and versions, so we cherry pick ones that will work for us. It’s more about keeping the spirit of the song alive, rather than religiously sticking to what might be most well known. A lot of these songs were passed through countless shanty singers and changed constantly before becoming what most people know them as.
It’s hard to choose. There’s so many great picks, about historical events and figures or quirky and fun nonsense. I could be selfish and pick one of our originals because it’s always amazing to see those out in the wild being enjoyed by people. Let’s go with Worker’s Song or Hard Times Come Again No More, for the same reason we put them on the album - they’re just so relevant to the world right now.
Lucy is in fact a classically trained trumpeter and folk artist herself, who’s been a friend and member of our community for a long time. She’s transcribed a lot of our catalogue to help us publish our songbooks so that was an easy place to start from.
As for the style, it’s something we’ve enjoyed for a long time, coming from a background of video games, as have a lot of our fanbase. We thought it’d be a fun and different way to get these great songs out into the world, to be enjoyed by those who recognise the underlying tunes as well as those who don’t.
More of what we do well, but bigger and better. More shows, more recordings, more videos and streams. We’ve always been doing what we love and success provides a larger amount of freedom to explore that. Maybe we’ll buy a ship and sail the world on it!
Smoke and Oakum is available to purchase from the band’s website and stream on all major platformsSee all of Bright Young Folk's text interviews.