Shanty sets course for the gospel

Expecting Christ’s return with a catchy tune: “The Wellerman” has gone Christian. Here is how the TikTok hit ended up at a Day of the Youth event.

A Day of the Youth during the pandemic? Impossible! Nope, it’s possible. At least if everyone remains in their car. That is what happened on Ascension in the working area of Apostle Thorsten Zisowski in Germany. The divine service took place in a drive-in cinema. The altar had been put on the back of a truck. And the sermon was broadcast via radio. And what about music?

Singing together during Covid-19: sure, that works virtually. Everybody knows a virtual choir or has been part of one. But for the Day of the Youth it was supposed to be something special, Marcel Witte says, who is the conductor of the youth choir in Essen. He wanted to come up with something really awesome.

The problem was that apart from a few standard songs the young people from different districts did not have a common repertoire to fall back on. And choir practices were completely out of the question. It would have to be something simple to sing along to. The solution was as simple as it was ingenious, and it sloshed over from TikTok.

From mailman to pop star

A shanty had gone viral on the video platform. “The Wellerman” is the name of the song with which the Scottish postman Nathan Evans sparked a new craze across social media of sea shanties. They are going viral. His version had been duetted on the TikTop app. TikTok allows you to record a video that builds on another user’s video. When you post a so-called Duet, the original is placed on one side of the screen and your newly recorded one on the other.

“The Wellerman” not only went viral on TikTok but also on other social networks like YouTube. Soon prominent musicians like Gary Barlow, Brian May, and Andrew Lloyd Webber uploaded their own renditions of the song. Remixes hit the charts, taking top spots in more than dozen countries. So singing along for the young people was no problem. However, the lyrics had to be adapted for a church service.

Better Jesus than tea and rum

The original “Wellerman” comes from New Zealand and was written in the 1860s. It tells of a whaling ship, the Billy o’Tea, whose crew were waiting for a supply ship to arrive. These boots and their crew were called “wellermen”. They were named after the Weller brothers, whose company sold provisions to whalers. The wellermen’s arrival heralded new supplies of “sugar, tea, and rum”, but also the hope to take their leave and go, and say goodbye to the hard work.

The Day of the Youth version used in Essen had its very own text. It describes the life, work, and return of Jesus Christ in a nutshell. It was rewritten by singer-songwriter Angelina Kalke along with Max Knorr, who also took the role of lead singer. He not only sports a Captain Ahab beard, but as a part-time boating instructor he even has some nautical background.

In addition to almost two dozen singers, a violin and a hurdy-gurdy also came on board for the virtual performance. “The Wellerman (Christian Style)” nearly ran aground, however. One day before the deadline, Marcel Witte was still waiting for videos to edit. Fortunately, the project did make it into the safe harbour. The result is fun, but a word of warning: “The Wellerman” has earworm potential.

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Andreas Rother
Media, Music