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Behind the Meaning of “The Wellerman” Sea Shanty Lyrics

June 16, 2023
"The Wellerman" meaning

“The Wellerman” is a traditional sea shanty that has recently gained popularity on social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube.

What makes this shanty so captivating is its catchy melody and harmonies, which have led to numerous adaptations and remixes by modern artists and musicians.

Its lyrics and melody have also evoked nostalgia and curiosity among listeners, prompting them to explore the history and culture behind traditional sea shanties.

In this context, understanding the meaning behind the lyrics of “The Wellerman” can provide insight into the daily life of sailors and the vital role that shanties played in their work and social interactions.

Additionally, it can shed light on the enduring appeal of traditional folk music and the power of music to connect people across time and cultures.

When And Where Does “The Wellerman” Song Take Place?

“The Wellerman” was originally from New Zealand, where whaling was a massive business from 1791 until the closure of the Perano Whaling Station in 1965.

New Zealand now has a firm anti-whaling stance, and the government supports a global moratorium on whaling.

Another hint is the title of the sea shanty.

The song tells the story of a group of whalers waiting for a “Wellerman” supply ship to bring essential provisions like sugar, tea, and rum.

“The Wellerman” refers to the real-life Weller Brothers, who were prosperous mercantile traders in the area.

Their employees were referred to as “Wellerman.”

The Weller Brothers settled in the 1830s close to Otago Harbour in New Zealand, a well-known whaling station.

While it only lasted a short while, trading with whalers and those close to whaling stations was very lucrative.

The Weller Brothers eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1840.

Who Wrote “The Wellerman” Song And When?

The “The Wellerman” was sung to coordinate the sailors’ work and help keep their spirits up during long voyages.

The song’s original author is unknown, as it was likely composed and sung by sailors aboard whaling ships during the 1800s.

However, the lyrics were first recorded in print in a book called “Old Sea Shanties” by William Main Doerflinger, published in 1951.

Neil Colquhoun, a folk song compiler from New Zealand, collected this sea shanty in 1966 for posterity.

However, the song has been adapted and arranged by various musicians and singers throughout the years.

The song has gained popularity on social media and streaming platforms, thanks partly to a remix by Scottish musician Nathan Evans, which went viral on TikTok in late 2020.

Deeper Meaning To “The Wellerman”

While the song’s lyrics may seem simple on the surface, they hold a more profound meaning about the complex and dangerous work of whaling and the reliance of sailors on outside support.

“The Wellerman” represents the power of community and teamwork.

The whalers face a difficult and dangerous situation but can overcome it by working together and relying on one another.

It emphasizes the importance of perseverance and the ability to endure difficult situations collectively.

The deeper meaning of “The Wellerman” is that it represents the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The song captures the struggles of the sailors and their reliance on the Wellerman for their survival.

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

Furthermore, the song can also be interpreted as a reflection of the human desire for connection and the longing for home.

The whalers are isolated from society and must rely on the promise of the Wellerman’s arrival to sustain them.

The song’s chorus, which describes the Wellerman bringing “sugar and tea and rum,” represents the comforts and joys of home the whalers miss at sea.

Every song’s chorus is written from the perspective of those crew members.

They discuss “tonguing,” which is the cutting up of a whale’s tongue.

Once it is completed, the whale is genuinely dead, and their search can be concluded.

The other verses are not from the crew’s perspective. 

Instead, we hear more about the ship’s fate as if it were gossip passed about.

For forty days, or even more
The line went slack, then tight once more
All boats were lost; there were only four
But still, that whale did go.

The whale has eluded the captain, who refuses to give up. 

There have even been risky confrontations; some whaling ships have either been destroyed or abandoned their pursuit.

Interpretation of The Song

One way to interpret “The Wellerman” is through its historical context.

The song reflects the harsh and challenging life of sailors in the 19th century who spent months away from home on long sea voyages.

The supply ship’s arrival, the Wellerman, was eagerly anticipated as it would bring much-needed provisions and supplies and provide a brief respite from the monotony and danger of life at sea.

The song also highlights the problematic and often dangerous task of hunting whales, a common occupation for sailors at the time.

Another way to interpret “The Wellerman” is through its symbolism.

The arrival of the Wellerman can be seen as a metaphor for hope and renewal and a representation of the importance of community and social connections.

The sailors’ reliance on each other and their shared anticipation of the Wellerman’s arrival can be seen as a testament to the power of camaraderie and collective action.

The repeated refrain, “Soon may the Wellerman come,” can be interpreted as a call to action or a reminder of the importance of holding on to hope and optimism despite adversity.

Why Did It Go Viral?

“The Wellerman” gained renewed popularity in late 2020 after a Scottish musician, Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing the song on TikTok.

This led to Evans signing a recording contract with Universal Music and releasing a single of the song, which charted in several countries.

The video went viral, and many other people on TikTok and other social media platforms began creating their song versions, often adding their unique twists and harmonies.

However, this song had been recorded multiple times since Colquhoun first collected it.

A New England folk trio recorded a rendition for their album And So Will We Yet in 1990.

In 2013, the Wellington Sea Shanty Society released their version on an album called Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties Vol. 1.

The Longest Johns, a folk a cappella group, recorded it in 2018.

German Pirate Metal band Storm Seeker also covered the song in 2021.

Except for existing folk lovers, most of these recordings were ignored until Evans’ version hit TikTok gold.

“The Wellerman” has since been featured in various TV shows and films, including the Netflix series “Bridgerton,” the movie “Cruella,” and the TV series “The Blacklist.”

It has also been used in advertisements for brands such as P&O Cruises and Co-op supermarkets.

One reason “The Wellerman” went viral is its catchy melody and simple yet infectious chorus that is easy to sing.

The song’s maritime theme and historical origins add to its appeal, making it a unique and fascinating cultural artifact.

The song’s viral success can be attributed to the power of social media and how it enables people worldwide to discover and participate in cultural phenomena in real time.

With many people isolated because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many turned to social media for entertainment and engagement.

Cool Facts About “The Wellerman”

Many claim that “The Wellerman” isn’t even a sea shanty.

Sea shanties are historical tunes that generate a rhythm for sailors to recite or sing while working, such as hauling ropes and raising sails.

The rhythm of the song helped them to work together more efficiently.

No musical instruments are used, and the lyrics are frequently improvised on the spot.

They’re simple, repetitive vocalizations.

“The Wellerman” does not count because it tells a specific story. 

The lyrics become fundamental to the song, which isn’t what a sea shanty is about.

The song’s original lyrics were in Maori, the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, and were later translated into English.

The “The Wellerman” melody is based on an old Scottish folk song called “The Greenland Whale Fisheries.”

Can This Popular Song Be Described as a Ballad?

A ballad is a narrative poem or song that tells a story, often with a simple and repetitive melody.

Ballads, like sea shanties, are easy to memorize but rely on lyrics to convey a narrative, while actual sea shanties do not.

While “The Wellerman” shares some characteristics with traditional ballads, such as a narrative structure, repetition, and a singable melody, it is not typically classified as a ballad.

Ballads typically tell stories of tragic or heroic events and are often passed orally over generations.

They typically follow a distinct narrative structure, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and often include supernatural or mythical elements.

“The Wellerman,” on the other hand, is a more contemporary composition that tells a relatively simple story about the whaling industry.

While it has been passed down orally over time and has a memorable melody, it does not have the same supernatural or mythical elements often found in traditional ballads.

The original writer of “The Wellerman” most likely intended to create a sea song as a ballad.

You may also like: Best Songs About the Sea

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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