It's easy to see why "Soon May the Wellerman Come" became TikTok's first viral hit of 2021.
But at the risk of raining on the internet's fun, the cheeriness of the tune is deceptive.
No wonder they wanted to take their leave and go.
The right whale, or the whale right now
Colquhoun first published the song in 1965; by sheer coincidence, this was the same year New Zealand banned whaling.
Whale oil was a foul-smelling thing, but its usefulness in lamps, candles, soap, food and industrial lubricants outweighed the odor.
The prices varied wildly from place to place, but in the U.S.
that much whale oil could net you at least $150,000 in today's money, not counting the whale bone.
That might help explain why the Billy o' Tea, the ship in the verses of "Wellerman," spent two weeks looking for a right whale and more than 40 days trying to kill the thing.
The Billy o' Tea — a "Billy" is a pot used for heating water — appears to be a fictional ship.
When the Wellerman came
Edward Weller left Otago in 1840, never to return.
But context is key.
So the next time you hit play on a version of "Wellerman," take a moment to remember the gruesome whale oil business it describes.
Perhaps one day shanties will be sung about modern-day oil companies that are even more damaging to the environment; a rapidly warming planet would certainly be better off if they would take their leave and go.
- The Guardian : Not just for drunken sailors: how sea shanties took over TikTok / How a Scottish postie's simple sea shanty struck a global chord
- WSJ : ‘Sea Shanty’: Now It’s Yo, Ho, Ho and a TikTok Duet
- NYTimes : Everyone’s Singing Sea Shanties (or Are They Whaling Songs?)
- Time Mag : In These Tumultuous Times, Sea Shanty TikToks Have Suddenly Become a Port in the Storm
- The Conversation : When old sea shanties go viral we know that tradition matters
- JStor Daily : What’s the Difference between a Shanty and a Sea Song?