Talking pirate simulators, shipwrecks and the reemergence of maritime anthems with the new face of sea shanties, The Longest Johns.
Before the world irrevocably changed, I was going into the office every day. Monotony was an issue. To avoid feeling stymied, and itching for a brew, on the odd Monday night, myself and a few of the editors could be found congregating at the Griswold Inn, affectionately referred to by the locals (us) as the “Gris.” On their website, the Gris says its tap room has been called the most handsome barroom in America. Whoever sincerely thinks so needs to get his or her eyes checked. Upon arrival to the neighborhood haunt, you’re greeted with a scene ripped straight from Moby-Dick, with sagging wooden floorboards, nautical paintings adorning every wall and an increasingly dark interior the further you go in. Handsome? Far from it. But it was perfect.
But the decor alone was not why you would brave a serious case of rotgut after drinking draft beer from the taps. You went to hear a litany of sea shanties, sung by a local band. Let me tell you something: The world’s biggest curmudgeon would have a hard time making it through three raucous choruses of “Roll The Woodpile Down” without cracking a smile or joining in. Sea shanties used to be the world’s best kept secret, hence going to one of the oldest, continuously operated inns in the country to hear them sung. Since then, the lid has forever been blown off thanks, in part, to the melodious dedication of The Longest Johns.
The four singers—Andy Yates, Dave Robinson, Jonathan “JD” Darley and Robbie Sattin—from Bristol, U.K. have successfully revived the genre, using a combination of social media savvy and songwriting chops. I first came across them on Instagram. They were belting out their now-viral track “Wellerman” off their second album, Between Wind and Water (2018). “Wellerman” is the perfect distillation of what makes a great sea shanty, because it has all of the desirable ingredients: an epic seafaring tale, an easily learned chorus and a repetitious melody that curls like a viper in your skull. Little did I know then, that my thirst for catchy 15th-century ditties had only just begun.
Luckily for me, The Longest Johns are debuting their latest album, Smoke and Oakum, in January. They’re also hoping, thanks to lifting travel bans, to tour North America in 2022. That’s welcome news, because the only thing better than listening to a good sea shanty is getting the chance to sing it with a rowdy group of inebriated maniacs.
PMY: First off, how do you guys know each other?
Andy: We’re a manufactured pop band put together by an A.I. and I don’t like any of them. That’s a joke.
JD: We’ve known each other for over 13 years. So it’s been a fair while, but we all met whilst working for a performing arts charity. I was playing with a band there. Robbie was playing for a different band. Dave was doing sound and lighting and Andy was working in the recording studio. We were just a group of friends to start who happened to be listening to the same sort of weird music at the same time and gave it a go, and had a wonderful time doing it. And here we are 10 years later still going.
PMY: Were all your respective bands folk, and doing the sea shanty thing?
Dave: No, not at all. Robbie was in an electro-pop band, Andy was doing a bit of—
Andy: —jazz … ish.
Dave: And we used to do function bands. You did have a bluegrass function band. That was kind of the closest we were to folk.
PMY: So how did you hit on this folksy, maritime anthem element? Where did it come from?
Andy: We were all really good friends and musicians, and we’d all been listening to Fisherman’s Friends and Stan Rogers. The former is a particularly big U.K. shanty band and latter is a bit of a legendary Canadian folk musician who’s done some sea shanty stuff. And yeah, we’d all been listening to it and we gave it a go. And we thought it sounded really good. And we didn’t really stop.
Robbie: I think that’s a good starting position for anyone looking to get into it—and now us, hopefully.
JD: It really was just that curiosity to start with, and just falling deeper and deeper into the pit as time went by. A week after we all sung together at a party, we recorded some videos in an ex-member’s kitchen, and that was the start of our adventures. Off the back of that video we got invited to a festival in Cornwall, and that got us invited to another one and then overseas in Europe. And that was where it all snowballed from.
We found our way into this really active and brilliant and thriving community of sea shanty singers that have been going strong for decades. And it’s a really great community, but if you don’t know it’s there, it’s really hard to find. That’s where a lot of our changes in direction have come from, and trying to get this music heard by more people. We believe it’s really good. And to get people to hear it and experience it for the first time is half the battle.
PMY: On that note, what’s your explanation behind this growing, seemingly global fascination with sea shanties? And has that contributed to your success?
JD: Absolutely. The entire world is connected now in such a close way because of the internet. Our biggest step was in 2019. We’d done a bunch of stuff online, like YouTube and all sorts of other places, but it was a bit sporadic. Then we decided that every single Wednesday, we’re going to release a new thing on YouTube. And we’ve been doing it ever since. When lockdown happened, we were doing it five, six days a week. It’s just all these different ways people can engage with media online, and that musical space within there and stuff they’ve never heard before. We’ve found ourselves in this niche.
PMY: And then “Wellerman” goes viral. Were you surprised with how big of a hit that’s become? And can you walk me through how that happened?
JD: Weirdly enough, that was the first or second video that we put out in 2019. It was us singing “Wellerman” in the game Sea of Thieves—it’s like a pirate, going around fighting people sort of game—and we decided we’re going to surprise people and sing songs for them instead. It’s one of the most popular things we’ve done on our channel. It seemed like every few months, another platform would pick up that song, and share it around, and it would suddenly go viral. Every two, three months, our listener base on Spotify would double over night. And we’d all be like, “Wow, this is crazy. I can’t believe it’s reached this level!” And this was going on until January 2021 when it happened again, but suddenly the phone starts ringing as well, and it’s all these different record labels and agencies and management and media outlets trying to get a hold of us.
It was this weird seed that was planted all the way back then that kind of took on its own life and grew, and it was amazing to see and be part of.
Andy: We were pretty successful before in a way. We’d already built quite a big fan base for an independent band. But yeah, we’re definitely way bigger than we were before then, for sure.
JD: Yeah, we didn’t exactly get into sea shanties and folk music because we expected to hit mainstream. Here we go, folk music. Rock and roll!
Andy: We started it for fun, and I think that’s always been the core of it. Every time something happened, and people were actually engaging with it, it just blew my mind. Like what the heck is going on?
PMY: I would’ve thought the older generations would love to see this revival in sea shanties, but I could never have imagined we’d see a #ShantyTok hashtag and involvement from Millenials and Gen Z.
Dave: I think it’s the fact that the songs are already hundreds of years old. It’s not like the older people were there from the beginning and have kept it going. It’s older than all of us, so we’re all young compared to the music.
Robbie: I think that’s what’s so universal about it. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t enjoy it when they hear it. I don’t think I’ve had anyone come to a show and go, “Not for me.” I guess we wouldn’t know because they’d have left…
PMY: So Smoke and Oakum comes out in January. Tell me about it. How does it compare with Cures What Ails Ya?
JD: It’s more related to the sound of the previous one I suppose, but still going in its own direction.
Robbie: We’ve had one album [Between Wind and Water] where we do mostly traditional sea shanties, almost to get them out of the way at the time, but it’s turned out to be our biggest selling record. Since then we’ve done half traditional and half our own songs. This one is the same. It’ll be our favorite traditional ones and then six or seven that we’ve written ourselves that we’re proud of, or think is funny or—what are the other criteria? I guess that sort of fit with the album theme overall.
JD: It’s definitely a different feeling from the previous album, but more expanding on the sound. So we’ve got more instrument stuff going on; it’s still a 50/50 split between a cappella and instrument, which seems like the line we’re going for. Definitely some other influences starting to creep in now as well, with some Americana, bluesy-esque things making an appearance, as well as some more folksy influences. It’s really good. [Laughs].
PMY: How difficult is it to write a sea shanty?
Dave: It can be a little bit of a tightrope to capture what makes the sea shanties true to themselves, whilst also trying to avoid a lot of the clichés that some of the old ones fall into and end up sounding like each other. It’s always kind of inspiration from songs, sometimes from history, but yeah it’s trying to make something that sounds new and old at the same time.
Robbie: The other option is we have a look at some historical ship or event or something that we hear about. Shipwrecks are always a good subject for a shanty. And learn a bit of the history and reinterpret it in some way, find a way to get people singing along to a chorus.
Andy: Usually somebody will write a melody and bring it to the group and we’ll work on it or write a rough arrangement of something. And lyrics, they’re important.
JD: It’s definitely a skill you can practice though, as with everything.