Meaning Behind “The Wellerman” Sea Shanty Lyrics

Chances are you’ve heard the viral sensation known as Soon May The Wellerman Come, The Wellerman, or just Wellerman. In 2021, it dominated TikTok and YouTube, with singer after singer and group after group covering it. There’s something about the melody that appeals to us all. But what about the lyrics?

If you’ve been wondering about The Wellerman sea shanty lyrics’ meaning, then you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to break the whole thing down, piece by piece, right here.

When and where does The Wellerman Song take place?

The Wellerman originally came from New Zealand, where whaling was big business from around 1791 until the Perano Whaling Station closed in 1965. Now, New Zealand has a strong anti-whaling stance, and the government supports a worldwide moratorium on whaling. This helps us narrow down the setting to in or near New Zealand waters.

The title of the sea shanty is another clue. The Wellerman refers to the real-life Weller Brothers, who were successful merchant traders in the area. Their employees were called, simply, “Wellerman.”

In the 1830s, the Weller Brothers established themselves near Otago Harbour in New Zealand, another popular whaling station. Trading with whalers and the people who lived near whaling stations was also big business—for a short while. However, the Weller Brothers eventually went bankrupt in 1840.

So, it’s most likely that we can place the time of origin of The Wellerman somewhere between 1831 and 1840.

Who wrote the song and when?

When it comes to old folk songs, we often don’t know who originally wrote them. Songs like these are passed down from person to person vocally over the years, so nobody needs to write anything down. Much later, when we want to know the original songwriter, that information is lost to the past. Because of this, we don’t know who wrote The Wellerman, but we do think it was created sometime in the 1830s. 

In 1966, Neil Colquhoun, a New Zealand-based folk song compiler, collected this sea shanty for posterity. Folk song compilers have the awesome job of finding these musical gems and making sure they don’t get forgotten. Colquhoun didn’t write The Wellerman, but we can thank him for bringing it to the rest of the world.

Is there a deeper meaning To The Wellerman?

In the song, we hear the story of a whaling ship called the Billy of Tea. The crew on the ship have been involved in a long search for a specific whale.

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

Now, they’re tired and in need of supplies. In particular, they’re looking forward to a Wellerman trader coming so they can purchase comfort items. 

Each chorus of the song is from the point of view of those crew members. They talk about “tonguing,” which refers to the cutting up of a whale’s tongue. Once that is done, the whale is truly dead, and their search can finally come to an end.

The other verses are not from the point of view of the crew. Instead, we hear more about the fate of the ship as if it is gossip that’s been shared around.

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

We learn that the whale has evaded the captain, who refuses to give up. There have even been dangerous encounters, and some of the whaling ships have either been downed or have given up the chase.

Two ways to interpret this song

The first is a straightforward meaning. It’s about a whaling ship that can’t come home because it’s chasing a difficult prey. 

The second is more metaphorical. It’s hard not to make comparisons to the famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This is a book about a captain’s compulsive search for a specific whale. His inability to give up and move on is a tragic downfall. We see similarities in the legend of these poor crew members on the Billy of Tea.

In this way, the song becomes a catchy, toe-tapping warning about the dangers of fixating on being the winner. If Billy of Tea’s captain could let this whale go, or if he could move on to a different whale, then everyone could finally go home.

If you’ve ever chased an impossible goal out of spite or revenge, this may be a cautionary song for you.

Why did it go viral?

In 2021, Scottish singer Nathan Evans uploaded his recording of Wellerman to TikTok, where it became the internet sensation we all remember.

Nathan Evans - Wellerman (Sea Shanty)

Before that, though, this song had been recorded several times since Colquhoun first collected it. In 1990, a folk group from New England recorded a version for their album And So Will We Yet. The Wellington Sea Shanty Society also recorded their own version in 2013 on an album titled Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties Vol. 1. A folk a cappella group called the Longest Johns recorded it in 2018.

Most of these recordings went relatively unnoticed except by existing folk fans until Evans hit TikTok gold with his version. After that, all previous recordings—as well as the memed versions to come—received significant attention around the world.

It’s not that the previous versions weren’t good. The reason Evans was the turning point is likely that he used the right platform at the right time. With people locked down during the Covid-19 pandemic, many were turning to social media for entertainment and interaction.

The Wellerman isn’t just catchy. It’s an invitation to sing along. People needed that more than ever in 2021.

Other cool facts 

Many argue that The Wellerman isn’t a sea shanty at all. Sea shanties are historically songs that create a rhythm for the sailors to chant or sing while they work. It helps keep their minds off the tedium and physical stress. There are no musical instruments, and often, the lyrics are improvised on the spot. They’re repetitive, simple vocalizations. One common example is What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?

The reason The Wellerman doesn’t count in this scenario is that it tells a specific story. The lyrics become central to the song, which isn’t the point of a sea shanty.

It may be better to describe this popular song as a ballad

Ballads are songs (or poems) that tell a story in short verses. Like sea shanties, ballads can be repetitive and easy to memorize, but they rely on lyrics to get a narrative across, which true sea shanties don’t do.

Many songs today can be referred to as ballads, but this style has been popular for hundreds of years. It’s likely the original writer of The Wellerman meant to write a sea song in the form of a ballad. We’ve just started calling it a sea shanty because many of us don’t know the difference.

Does it matter what we call it? 

Not really. However, if you’re a fan of the story of The Wellerman, you may be disappointed when you look for other sea shanties. Instead, try looking for sea song ballads. The Wellerman is just one example of many cool songs that come from the sea.

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