Sea shanties on the prairie ocean

A photograph of Brown looking a little less pirate and a little more English school boy. Stephen Brown

Saskatchewan man-of-all-trades joins shanty phenomenon

One of the strangest trends emerging from the mixed bag that is the social media platform TikTok in the last year is sea shanties. These are, for the uninitiated, folk songs traditionally sung aboard a ship as a means of keeping time or building relationships between sailors. A Scottish man named Nathan Evans is attributed with starting the viral trend after posting a cover of “Wellerman,” a sea shanty believed to originate from New Zealand.[1] After that, innumerable TikTok users from around the world joined in, using the “duet” feature to harmonize along with Evans, or posted their own renditions of shanties.

In an article for Today, journalist Kerry Breen attributes the surge of interest in these songs, some of which were written 200 years ago, to this aforementioned function of relationship building. Breen writes that “[o]ne of the most common theories [about the phenomenon] was that the songs, which are meant to be sung by a crew and do not require any musical training to be sung well, are a way for people to connect amid the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.”[2] The ability to join in and “duet” virtually with some harmonies, from anywhere in the world, helped foster a sense of unity this past year.

Not all shanty enthusiasts got their starts last year on TikTok, however. Some, like Stephen Brown (his full name being Stephen James Talbot Brown II), have been answering the call of the shanty for a long time. When Brown was recommended to me for this interview, I simply couldn’t fathom how, other than the TikTok trend, a person from Saskatchewan would discover a calling for sea shanties, being that there’s no sea out here! Though, I suppose we are all indoctrinated by that old “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” song, which seems to play everywhere from middle school dances to bars to every wedding ever.

This is not a problem for Brown, who is originally from Moose Jaw but is of both South African and Canadian descent, and is an adventurer, world traveller, and an “avid canoer.” He says he began his journey with shanties because he “was immersed in the songs of the voyageurs from [his] time on Lake of the Woods, and in the shanties of the Maritimers from [his] travels in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. [He] also found inspiration in the indigenous music of the Xhosa and Zulu people in South Africa, from time spent in the eastern highlands.”

“I’ve always been a musical person,” Brown says, “especially growing up in the theatre department, so my interest grew well under those conditions. My capacity for actually recording and performing was enabled by my work as a radio voicer on Mix 103, Country 100, and 800 CHAB, as I was employed there for some time after Highschool as a reporter.”

At 20 years old, Brown seems to have lived more than anyone else has in one singular lifetime. He seems to have seen and done everything, recreationally or in the workplace. He is also a recent graduate of the Primary Care Paramedic program at SIAST, with an “extensive list of hobbies,” including “gardening, Sabre fencing, amateur electrical maintenance, martial arts, Dungeons and Dragons, survivalism, rock climbing, funk, and funk related activities.” I, for one, have no idea what a “funk related activity” would be, but regardless, it’s undeniable that Brown is a diversely talented individual.

And if you think all of those jobs and interests are diverse and random, Brown also humble brags that he was once “a voice actor and an escape room operator” to boot, which gave him the skills to sing folk songs in many different languages such as Gaelic, Breton, Swahili, and German, though he can’t claim to speak them all well. Mostly, he sticks to covers in English and French. When asked what his favourite cover so far is, Brown says it “would have to be ‘Now is the Cool of the Day,’” by Jean Ritchie. “It’s a folk song that emblazons the theme of environmental protection upon the traditional images of the Garden of Eden,” Brown explains. He also says his cover was actually part of a competition with his good friend, Ryland Wiberg, from JustRyland Music, “in which [they] each took the base vocals and had a competition to see who could create a more impressive composition,” which Wiberg, a digital orchestral composer “clearly won,” according to Brown.

When asked for his musical inspirations, Brown lists “Stan Rogers, the Dreadnoughts, the Longest Johns, and Shawn James and the Shapeshifters.” Outside of music, he describes his “inner inspiration” being “brought on by [his] time in the leopard and baboon infested South African jungle, in which [he] survived for a week without food, water or shelter of [his] own.” He doesn’t give a reason for this excursion, but given the rest of his hobbies, I can assume it was purely for fun. He says it was just him, “a machete, a matchbox, and five other semi-nude teenagers who despised my singing.” While out in the jungle, he “found comfort in singing the music of the old pioneers” and “walking around naked, hacking at cacti with a machete,” he adds. These stories lead me to believe perhaps Brown himself is the real “Last Saskatchewan Pirate;” the folk hero we have all been looking for!

Brown beckons any “strange souls who wish to seek out [his] music” to find it on his SoundCloud @SouthSaskatchewanShrike. “If that doesn’t suffice,” he adds, “they can break into my house and listen through my pipes to my constant belting during all hours of the day.” He is also on Instagram @dj_wallaby.

[1] “Sea Shanty TikTok – @nathanevanss.” TikTok Newsroom, Jan 25, 2021

[2] “Here’s Why TikTok is Obsessed with Sea Shanties.”, Jan 14. 2021.


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