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There once was a ship that put to sea...

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January 2021

#ShantyTok

The story so far: a Scottish postman called Nathan Evans records a 60 second video clip of himself singing a sea shanty on TikTok, and other musicians start joining in, and it... goes viral. That word – viral. It’s hard to describe #shantytok without borrowing the terminology of COVID-19, but anyway. There’s nothing remarkable about a social media post going viral. But this one is featured on the news all over the world. Evans’s recording of the song goes to #1 in the charts. It’s been this strange, almost hysterical, global moment.

Because it happened at the exact moment when Donald Trump incited a failed insurrection to attack the US Capitol building and prevent the handover of power to his presidential successor, Joe Biden. I feel like we’ve already forgotten that the two things were connected, because since 2016 the density of News per Square Inch has increased by a factor of 10. It’s so hard to keep track of what happened.

I don’t think it was so much about the song itself, or even the slightly comical fact that this was TikTok (the social media platform with the youngest demographic) embracing sea shanties. In any less insane period of history, it would only be talked about by people interested in internet memes.

But it happened when people around the world, particularly in the US and UK, were just desperately grasping for some good news. Maybe if The Wellerman shanty hadn’t happened then there would have been some other viral story.

Then again, maybe not. Because this curious alchemy of TikTok + communal folk singing resonated deeply with so many who have been starved of human contact for nearly a year. Now, it’s easy to think this is a global story – how much non-English speakers around the world care about this I have no idea. But for people in the US and the UK, particularly white men, our history has seemed increasingly toxic these last few years, and we’ve started to wonder whether we’ve been gaslighting ourselves all this time, and then... this strangely wholesome thing happens.

And it’s been interesting seeing how the UK folk scene has responded to it too. Some of the leading lights have been celebrating it on Twitter; some have been saying to each other “I feel like we should somehow be capitalising on this #ShantyTok thing... but I have no idea how!”

Anyway, the moment has basically passed now, and the world has moved on.

But it made a big impression on me.

Because, realistically, we in the UK still have weeks of hard lockdown, and then months of social distancing restrictions after that. On top of that, the UK has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world. And it’s January. And the government isn’t even pretending to govern, and is now focusing its energies on crafting the narrative on how they are remembered in this national crisis.

We need connection more than ever.

Which is a long rambling way of saying that I’ve hitched on to the folk TikTok train in a fairly major way.

This month’s recommendations... are pretty much all from TikTok. And all the music I’ve been doing this month... is also on TikTok.

I mean, if Trump wanted to ban it so much, there must be something good about it, right?

New Music This Month

Here is a collection of some of the TikTok mischief that’s been happening this month. It’s divided into the following: Shanties, Folk Tunes, Duets and Star Wars. (You'll be relieved to know they're all very short – TikToks can be no longer than 60 seconds.)

I think it’s reasonable to expect… there might be more from me in future.

On TikTok, everyone can hear you scream. But they can't hear you scream in sync with everyone else.

Upcoming Events

Friday 12th February

Every second Friday of the month. With... a slightly different Zoom link this time.

These are online versions of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

You simply click this (different to the normal one for this month only):

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New (well, now Old) Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  2. It’s a one-at-a-time performing thing, and I have to mute everyone during each performance (because of audio lag) (and also, because I get an enormous kick out of it).
  3. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  4. Also, I find all Zoom calls weirdly tiring, so feel free to hide your video, and wander in and out.

All my recorded music thus far...

I mention this each time now, but it occurs to me that, since I've stripped the newsletter format down for lockdown, I don't actually have any links to the website. So I thought I might as well just chuck this in here.

Click on the image above for a link to my (now... kinda old) music. (I mean, even the stuff that wasn't old when I recorded it is now kinda old.)

Hope you enjoy! And now, here are this month's recommendations:

Recommendation

THE WELLERMAN SHANTY (OBVIOUSLY)
Like Waiting for Godot, only he’s bringing you sugar and tea and rum

So here it is, the original, the Billy of Tea, the ship that launched a thousand TikToks.

If you haven’t seen it already, this YouTube video is a cut-and-paste collection that gives you a pretty good sense of how the original clip caused this creative chain reaction.

I feel like it’s easy to lose all perspective on what it actually means, within its Giant Meme-ness. For example, I’ve listened to it so many times that it’s not really a song: it’s just basically a dopamine delivery system.

But taking a step back, I think this whole Wellerman phenomenon perfectly captures a very specific part of pandemic life: we have come to accept emotional disconnection as normal… we can’t see people outside of our household, month on month on month… but when we have a sliver of a chance to connect, it kind of all comes pouring out. Like the Clap for Carers way back in the Beginning Times.

Recommendation

TIKTOK HARMONY SINGERS
This is my kind of social media

But before #shantytok kicked off there was #acapellachallenge. Which is basically a more general version of the same thing.

I’ve said before (in another newsletter) about how I pine for the days of Facebook in about 2008, when it seemed like all my friends were competing to see who could come up with the most wholesomely entertaining content.

That’s what TikTok feels like to me now.

Someone records a solo vocal part, and then someone happens upon it and tries to improve it, and then someone tries to improve that. Like a game of musical ‘Consequences’.

Some of these are truly great.

Recommendation

MR GOOGLY EYES (AGAIN, ON TIKTOK)
The Benny Hill Show theme is a nice touch.

This is a couple who just go around UK supermarkets and stick googly eyes onto the products. It’s minimalist perfection.

Recommendation

HANK GREEN TIKTOK
#askhank

I’ve gone on about the Green brothers at length in the past: acclaimed authors (of The Fault In Our Stars and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing), creators of YouTube’s Crash Course and Vidcon, and just generally lords of the internet.

In last year’s podcasts and vlogs Hank Green talked about how he wanted to crack TikTok, just to figure out what made it... tik, I guess.

He eventually nailed it with the #askhank hashtag, where people ask him random pop science questions like “why don’t humans eat grass?” and he offers his take.

This is a good example of how a 40 year old human can carve their own space on TikTok without needing to do dance crazes. (Which is a relief on my part.)

Recommendation

THE AUNTY SHANTY SONGBOOK

Not a TikTok recommendation. Not even a YouTube recommendation.

Aunty Shanty is an Oxford folk institution: a folk session that, like the Bastard English Session, has also moved onto Zoom during the pandemic.

I had never actually been until last week, when I finally logged on (in my pyjamas because I’m a grown-up now and I can do what I like) to the Zoom session.

What I hadn’t realised is that they have catalogued all of their shanties on their website, and so when people sing they will say “Let’s do number 48” like it’s a hymn or a takeaway order. So everyone has the words!

I love seeing how other event organisers solve similar problems to the ones I have.

Speaking of which, the Aunty Shanty site is extremely proactive in confronting the misogyny, racism and general bigotry in much of this old material. And they’re quite happy to just change the words completely. For which I salute them.

That, I believe, is what makes a living tradition.

Recommendation

CUTE ANIMAL TIKTOK

I mean, let's be honest...

Okay, so, you’ve been really good, reading all this stuff up to now. Here’s your treat.

All the stuff I’ve been saying about Music TikTok is really just a bluff.

We all know that it’s really just about cute animals.

Dear Diary...

Music events on Zoom can be great. No, seriously, they can. It’s taken some time to do some problem-solving, and it’s definitely not for everyone, but we’re getting there. My first visit to that Aunty Shanty session was a reminder of that.

I recently had an online chat with one of the semi-regular Bastard Online Sessioners about a research project he was doing on alcohol consumption in the folk scene during the pandemic. (He wanted to talk to me for some reason.) And we ended up talking quite a bit about how Zoom folk sessions do, and don’t work.

I was actually a little surprised that part of his thesis was that Zoom music events are hard work because people don’t drink alcohol. And that just kills the energy. Off the back of this, he and his partner resolved that for the next Bastard Online Session they would be completely shitwrecked throughout, which they were – and I have to say, it made a world of difference and cheered everyone up no end. Now it’s a rule that at least one person needs to be worse for wear. (And the rest of us need to be kind of a designated driver, because alcohol consumption in a pandemic is obviously a slippery slope!)

But the lack of booze isn’t the only thing that makes the Bastard Online Session different from a real folk session. There’s also a sort of elephant in the room…

We can’t play together.

Which is sort of the whole point of a folk session.

When travelling through the internet, everyone’s audio gets a little bit delayed, meaning we will all be out of time with each other no matter how hard we try.

Playing together is such a fundamental part of musicians’ lives that I was wondering when some technological breakthrough would overcome it. And there are some online platforms that do this, but they’re quite niche, and so musicians have the additional problem of trying to persuade each other to get onto the platform.

And then along came TikTok.

I was pretty familiar with TikTok before the Wellerman shanty exploded, because YouTube can’t shut up about it, and I watch a lot of YouTube. It seemed kind of fun, and relatively harmless. (Yes, the Chinese Government might be spying on us, but every government is spying on everyone – that’s just social media in the 21st century.)

But before #ShantyTok I wasn’t aware of TikTok’s Duet feature. And that was the really exciting thing for me. Sure, this was another viral phenomenon powered by content-sharing, but this time the content wasn’t political or satirical: it was music. It was community singing. In this case, it was folk music.

So began my intensive campaign to harass regulars of the Bastard Session onto TikTok. And, as you can see from the video earlier, the snowball is very gradually starting to build some momentum.

But… it has been hard.

TikTok good things: it has tons of users and therefore lots of funding, it’s fairly simple, the interface is fairly intuitive, and it allows musicians to collaborate online (in a global pandemic).

TikTok bad things: the actual duet feature is really pretty buggy, and it often crashes. And… there’s the dreaded TikTok Duet Audio Lag.

For me the whole appeal of TikTok Duets was the idea of musicians being able to play with other musicians without the internet audio lag, but when I started actually trying to duet with other TikTokers I found there was a whole new different kind of audio lag. Seemingly to do with what kind of microphone you used. But I was determined to figure this out – if the Wellermen didn’t have this problem then I was going to crack it too. (More on that further down.)

That said, even if you can get kit together that works, making these duets… is actually kinda hard! To begin with, at least.

I am very used to recording myself performing music. I have been doing it for three decades. But even I still find it hard. When musicians play together in the same room, they subtly adjust their timing, and sometimes their intonation too, so that the music gels together. Playing to a recording however (even a recording of yourself) lacks this, and it just sounds less good. It’s like trying to have a meaning conversation with a telephone answering machine.

The potential is there, I think, but there are still some obstacles to jump over.

A significant one that I think some sessioners have is the sense that they’re too old to be on TikTok in the first place. TikTok is a huge huuuuuge social media platform, but the largest user group is probably teenagers, and many are using this space to experiment with their identity in all sorts of ways. And when you happen upon that, you feel like you’re invading their space.

Maybe this is where learning about TikTok (and online platforms generally) from YouTube helped me, because I feel like there’s kind of an art to this. TikTok and YouTube have a business model that depends on them being able to put things in front of you that you actually want to watch and listen. The algorithms that power them are incredibly effective, if you consciously instruct them what you like and what you don’t like. So anything that you don’t like, swipe away immediately! (Don’t do, for example, what the first person who commented on one of my videos did – say “I don’t like this! Why is this on my feed?” – because, by leaving a comment, you are telling TikTok you are interested in my videos, and so they will feed you more.)

My first two or three days on TikToks gave me mostly teenagers doing dance routines. But then, I think on the third day, it gave me a video of a man in his 60s reading a poem about death over stunning footage of the Lake District. It got to know me pretty fast.

Of course, there’s the trade-off with these really powerful algorithms in that every large media company, and indeed every government, is collecting data about you. The big problem with that is that I feel like this data gathering can have benefits. I like the fact, for example, that YouTube and Netflix are trying to show me stuff that I’m interested in. I just need to constantly be aware of that trade-off.

This is kind of the ballad of modern technological life, I think. Huge advantages and disadvantages. I’m generally pretty optimistic about tech, and particularly optimistic about music on TikTok, because (unlike say Twitter and Instagram) I just feel like I get what it’s for. I feel like I can see how people can use it to make and share and collaborate on music.

And there’s one more feature that I find deeply exciting: the ability to collaborate with musicians around the world. This is a platform where language is not a barrier. That aspect of TikTok is the next thing I really want to explore.

So What Have We Learnt?

What have we learnt? We’ve learnt a lot about how to make TikToks.

If you’re interested into delving into this weird and wonderful world, here is my under-60-seconds explanation on how to fix that audio lag:

One way to fix TikTok Duet's audio lag problem

That’s not enough, and you want a much deeper dive? Well, you’re in luck.

https://www.facebook.com/notes/the-bastard-english-session/tiktok-tips-for-folkies/219903276423589/ 

Look.

I know… it’s TikTok.

But it’s bleak out there right now. And we need to take our connection wherever we can find it.

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the folk session. About life. About the universe. About sugar. About tea. About rum.

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PHOTO CREDITS:
  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
Copyright © 2021 House of Lyra, All rights reserved.


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