Sea Shanties, Psalms, and the Vicissitudes of Life

Recently, sea shanties came into a new virality with the song “Wellerman” (though the song itself is 150 years old). Utilizing a TikTok feature where one video can play next to another, a few people started harmonizing the song together (see below). Then more people got on board. The “Wellerman” song really is quite catchy. It can convert even the hesitant listener to sing along. Yet I had never really listened to the genre before, other than ancient Greek sea shanties during dinner clean up (courtesy of a housemate). I took a deep dive and listened to The Longest Johns, a U.K. quartet, and I was immediately hooked by the journey.

Listening to their most recent album, Cures What Ails Ya, I must admit feeling something close to emotional whiplash. The first song on the album, “Hoist up the Thing,” tells the humorous story of someone trying to impersonate a ship captain. Yet the songs seem to switch drastically between jaunty choruses (“Oak & Ash & Thorn”), wistful goodbyes (“Ashes”), playful tales (“The Last Bristolian Pirate”), and mournful dirges (“Fire & Flame”). In the melancholic “The Banks of the Lee,” the singer laments “I will pluck her some roses, / the fairest that ever grew / And I’ll leave them on the grave / of my own true lovely Mary.” Yet the very next song, “Moby Duck,” tells the wild and ridiculous tale of sailors going after “the fetid, feathered, fearsome, flying duck.”

Throughout this roller coaster of songs, I was reminded of the book of Psalms. The psalms similarly cover a wide range of emotions: at the end of Psalm 12, the psalmist says with confidence, “The promises of the Lord are sure.” Yet Psalm 13 opens with a lament, “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?” Reading and praying through them, I often struggle with how to approach such a wildly swinging group of prayers.

The 150 songs of the psalter are a group that defy most classification, though many scholars have tried. The psalms vary so widely because they intend to capture and express the huge variety of human life. Psalm 1 begins with the psalmist placing all trust in the law of God, as “the Lord knows the way of the just.” Yet by Psalm 88, the psalmist cries from the pit of depression, apparently with no escape: “Because of you friend and neighbor shun me; my only friend is darkness.” But by the final 5 psalms, there is extended and ecstatic praise of God’s goodness. How are we to understand this journey? What has moved the psalms from trust, to lament, to praise?

Walter Brueggemann offers an account in his seminal The Psalms & the Life of Faith, where he describes the psalter as moving through three stances of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. In the orientation stage, God’s love is evident and His law is clear. The righteous person is confident in God’s power; this faith orients the believer. However, life is unfortunately not so easy. We suffer. We lose the ones we love. The foundation shakes, we doubt, and the faith we once held is no longer sure. Sometimes, this is where people become stuck. Yet in this disorienting space, we can experience a new reorientation as a gift: Brueggemann describes it as where “life has disintegrated but has been formed miraculously again.” It is not I who chose to move myself from disorientation to reorientation; I experience something outside of myself that shifts the frame and gives me perspective.

Reorientation is not a simple naivete that ignores the suffering that one has undergone. Rather, it recognizes that pain is not the end; we can still find love and make meaning. This, of course, is not a linear process. Tragedy can strike us down no matter how much joy we have. Grace can surprise us, even in our darkest hours. Within the psalter, we can switch from lament to praise, trust to doubt, joy to sorrow, and back again. Yet the great psalms of praise, at the end of the psalter, remind us that there is always something good in the world.

The songs of The Longest Johns have no clear religious imagery; they do not point us towards God as the psalms do. Yet they too recognize the variety and disparity of human life. At the end of this wild album, the closing song is a classic Irish folk song, “Here’s a Health to the Company.” The singer invites others to come sing together, and celebrate their companionship. This invitation is not a naive ignorance of suffering. In the context of an album so full of both laughter and tears, the final song is a response to human life. The song expresses a reorientation: the existence of pain and grief does not preclude joy and love. Knowing the world isn’t perfect, we can still celebrate the fact we share our lives together.

So here’s a health to the company and one to my lass

Let’s drink and be merry all out of one glass

Let’s drink and be merry, all grief to refrain

For we may or might never all meet here again

 

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