Over the past year, various members of the Redfern Shanty Club found different ways to cope. Robert Boddington, with his thespian’s voice and easy stage patter, gathered a few friends and tried to sing in public places, “just turning up in the dead of night and quietly singing away”. Robin Howard says he got “the shakes”. Emma Norton, a train driver with a soaring Celtic voice, says: “I sang to myself a lot, I guess.”
On Monday night, as restrictions in Sydney were almost completely lifted – with relaxed caps on capacity in bars, and no limits on singing – this devoted and joyous community finally returned to their favourite weekly ritual.
The sea shanty night, which operates out of the Dock bar in Redfern, was put on hold early last year. It had been running for seven years, after being started by the Sydney comedian Carlo Ritchie, who Boddington says “used to sing in Berlin with some mates over a roast dinner on Mondays”, and brought the idea back home.
On its return, people are wearing blue and white Breton stripes, or white shirts with pirate-puffy sleeves, or overalls. Boddington, the current organiser, has promised “all the shanty bangers”. “We published [the return] on Friday and it has since then just been blowing up,” he says. “All the regulars, it’s as if they are doing their first show, there’s this wonderful nervous excitement in the air.”
It has been a long wait. The shanty club, out of an abundance of caution, stopped singing early in 2020, weeks before the mandated lockdown. Members waited patiently as other events (sport, theatre, the pub) came creeping back slowly. Over that year, shanties themselves suddenly went viral on TikTok, bringing a whole new generation into the salty fold.
But everybody in the crowded bar agrees – sea shanties do not work on Zoom.
On the first Monday back, it is extremely crowded, and hot, and the sides of the Dock bar are wood-walled and close. They seem to shake from the sound, like the hull of a big ship.
The singers start, as they always do, with the work song South Australia, and people bang on tables, stamp, clap, and play a stool like a bongo. Outside, there are more people waiting to be let in.
Tom Hanson, 70 years old and a 40-year veteran of the folk music scene, says it has been “depressing” without the joy of these communal nights.
“I’ve missed teaching the young ’uns, and the camaraderie. And the joy that I get from the young people carrying on the tradition is fantastic.
“The worst thing,” he says, “is I missed my 70th birthday, which would have been a Monday night – a shanty night!”
Norton then takes centre stage, leading the crowd in a rendition of The Manchester Rambler, an old British communist song that she says her family used to sing “all the time”.
She’d been a shanty club regular for two years before Covid struck.
“I played French horn, and piano, and sung in choirs a lot and I’ve been looking for an outlet for a long time,” she says. “I was really into old union songs, workers’ songs.
“And, actually, I got taken on an awkward date here, a Tinder date. Which was bold in a way. But I actually loved the shanty night, I just didn’t like the person who took me here. And I’ve been coming here every night after that.”
At the side of the room Howard is singing along. He tells Guardian Australia that he and his friends have been waiting for two hours, since 6.30pm. Without the shanty club, Howard says: “Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
His partner, Lauren Hart, says that during the hiatus “our record collection just kept getting older and older, and older, until it morphed into sea shanties”.
“The memories are coming back,” she says. “It’s not like karaoke where everyone is listening to the exact words, it’s more like a collective feeling.”
Boddington says this was the only way to bring the club back – to wait until restrictions loosened so it could be as packed and personable as it used to be.
Shanty club, he says, is “much looser” than a choir. It is about closeness, communality, call and response, sharing a physical space – not about singing perfectly in tune. “You can stand, sit, bang a drum, whatever.
“We’ve tried Zoom shants, that was awful. That was a train wreck, we didn’t even get 30 seconds in before we called it quits.
“This venue, there is a lot of sweat and a lot of close projection. So we didn’t want to risk it, coming back too early … [And with] 10 to 12 people, it will sound nice, but it won’t sound like the shanty club that people remember.
“It is about having enough people that when you hear it, it will almost blow out a recording speaker. There is a lot of noise, a lot of joy, that is what you want to come back to. You don’t want to come back half-mast.”
Halfway through the night, the group pauses for a moment. Boddington tells them that a Dock regular died on Sunday, a man who loved shanties, and who would have attended the first night back.
“He lived large and loose,” he says. “Sing wildly and loudly for him.”
And they do. They launch into the Scottish shanty Doon in the Wee Room. The tables are banged and the walls shake. “We’re all in the wee room, underneath the stairs,” the sing. “Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s there.”