One peculiar phenomenon of 2020 was the popularity of sea shanties, folk songs sung by sailors on 19th century whaling ships. The fad started quietly enough, when 27-year-old Scottish mailman Nathan Evans posted his fist-pounding a cappella rendition of “The Wellerman” on TikTok, which went viral, with Kermit the Frog and Andrew Lloyd Webber chiming in on choral videos. Then it hit mass saturation with a Regé-Jean Page skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle, who’s been singing shanties since he was a kid growing up in Newfoundland’s rugged coastal community of Petty Harbour, shares his own take on the genre in his new solo EP “Back to the Harbour,” out May 21.
On tracks such as the traditional “Leave Her Johnny,” mariner-themed originals “Back to the Harbour” and “Back Home on the Island, and his own a cappella showcase “Dream of Home,” his voice is Guinness-thick, and as warm as a Canadian kitchen, where Newfoundlanders traditionally gathered in the winter for family singalongs.
So he’s not cashing in on a craze. He helped create it when he formed Great Big Sea in college in 1993 and infused its rock with the rollicking sounds of Newfoundland’s Irish, Scottish and Cornish heritage. Shanties like “Gideon Brown” were a popular part of the band’s repertoire, to the point that 40-cut “XX” greatest-hits package from 2012 was divided into two discs, “The Pop Songs” and “The Folk Songs.”
But Doyle didn’t see this Renaissance coming.
“It’s so bizarre, yet just wonderful, and I actually did a Zoom TV interview with that Nathan Evans guy, who’s a lovely young fella,” he says, phoning from his St. John’s home, a year after a May 2020 concert at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall was canceled due to COVID.
“We were just chatting about shanties, and I said, ‘Man, where I come from, shanties have never gone out of style, and they were hot when I came to St. John’s around 1986, ’87.’”
Evans’ blustery bellow is part of the allure, too, he adds. But he thinks there’s something larger, and much more spiritual at work here.
“Right now, I think people are desperate to be connected to other people,” says Doyle, who just turned 52. “But now there’s a way, where some guy opens his mouth in Glasgow, and you can join in with him in the Philippines or wherever you are. There are people 100 feet down the road that we’re not allowed to be next to these days because of the pandemic, but we can feel connected in other ways. So the whole sea shanty revival has provided people with an opportunity to be with each other in some fashion, and I think it’s awesome.”
That sense of community was intrinsic to Great Big Sea concerts in the Bay Area over the years. Along with its equally-high-energy Irish peers The Saw Doctors, the outfit ran through a Celtic-folk-flavored catalog that had U.K.-expat-filled crowds singing along to almost every song. The shows were one of The City’s best kept secrets, and fans seemed to like it that way. Doyle, whose solo gigs are as lively, hopes to return to town to properly promote “Back to the Harbour,” plus 2020’s “Rough Side Out” EP, which never stood a chance after lockdown.
“We came home from last year’s tour on March 9, and we never left,” says the vagabond. “I remember sitting around and foolishly moving our Canadian dates by three weeks down the road, thinking, ‘Surely not every stage in the world will shut down on the same day for longer than a month!’”
Like many fellow artists, he adapted to survive, recording “Back” with producer Joel Plaskett and penning a new pub-yarn-styled book, his third, called “All Together Now: A Newfoundlander’s Tales For Heavy Times.” He has since started work on “Telltale Harbour,” a 2022 musical stage adaptation of Don McKellar’s 2013 Canadian film “The Grand Seduction,” wherein a small fishing village like Doyle’s gets a shot at industrial redemption.
But for now, Doyle is happy to let shanties return much-needed wind to his sails: “I think it’s cool that other people are now charmed by them. And it’s cool that if you live long enough, you’ll see stuff cycle around again. So hey, you’d better hold on to that jean jacket!”