Wellerman: lyrics and meaning of the Sea Shanty song from TikTok

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Among the songs made popular in recent years by the videos on TikTok, there is a rather particular one, which smells of bygone times already from the first time you listen to it. It is called Wellerman (Sea Shanty) and has become a trend on TikTok precisely by the hand of the Scottish singer Nathan Evans, who released it in 2021. The song, however, is not an original composition and has a very particular story, that we will see in this article. The official video of the song is the one you find below.

Nathan Evans’ passion is for Sea Shanties. In his official TikTok channel he presents his reinterpretations of ancient classics of the genre, gathering great success. Wellerman falls into this trend: originally it is a New Zealand sea ballad that dates back to the second half of the 19th century and tells of the difficulties of sailors embarked for whaling.

The lyrics and the meaning of the song

Under a particularly captivating rhythm, Wellerman‘s lyrics tell the legends that revolve around the ships that hunted whales, the underpaid sailors and the companies that hired the crew for those undertakings.

The word Wellerman comes from the Weller brothers, who had the largest whaling company in New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Wellerman is therefore one of the leaders of the company, who in the chorus of the song comes to give sugar, tea and rum. Not because he was generous and gave gifts to sailors, but for a much sadder reason: sailors at the time were so underpaid that they often weren’t even paid money, but received goods like that, which ended up being their entire pay.

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

The “tonguing” in the chorus was the last phase of whaling, in which the sailors cut them up on the shore.

The rest of the song tells the story of this ship called Billy of Tea, which set sail to hunt whales and collide with a specimen two weeks after the start of the journey. The whale was harpooned, but it was more powerful than the ship itself and dragged it away, producing an endless battle: the captain did not want to cut the ropes and the whale did not want to surrender, the men died but no one wanted to end the battle. As the song at the end says, “As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on / The line’s not cut, and the whale’s not gone”.

Here are the verses of the song, excluding the chorus that you already find above.

There once was a ship that put to sea
The name of the ship was the Billy of Tea
The winds blew up, her bow dipped down
Oh blow, my bully boys, blow (huh)

She’d not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore
The captain called all hands and swore
He’d take that whale in tow (huh)

Before the boat had hit the water
The whale’s tail came up and caught her
All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
When she dived down low (huh)

No line was cut, no whale was freed
The captain’s mind was not of greed
And he belonged to the Whaleman’s creed
She took that ship in tow (huh)

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 (huh)

As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on
The line’s not cut, and the whale’s not gone
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the captain, crew and all (huh)