THELast year, various members of the Redfern Shanty Club found different ways to cope. Robert Boddington, with his acting voice and easy rhythm on stage, gathered some friends and tried to sing in public places, “just appearing in the dead of night and singing quietly.” Robin Howard says he had “the shakes.” Emma Norton, a train conductor with a soaring Celtic voice, says, “I guess I sang to myself a lot.”
On Monday night, when restrictions in Sydney were almost completely lifted, with relaxed limits on capacity in bars and no limits on singing, this devout and joyous community finally returned to its favorite weekly ritual.
Shanty Night at Sea, which operates from the Dock bar in Redfern, was called off early last year. It had been running for seven years, having been started by Sydney comedian Carlo Ritchie, who Boddington says “used to sing in Berlin with some friends over a roast dinner on Mondays,” and he brought the idea home.
Upon their return, people wear blue and white Breton stripes, or white shirts with puffed sleeves of pirates or overalls. Boddington, the current organizer, has promised “all the shacks.” “We publish [the return] on Friday and has been exploding ever since, ”he says. “All the regulars, it’s like they’re doing their first show, there’s a wonderful nervous excitement in the air.”
It has been a long wait. The shanty club, as a precaution, stopped singing in early 2020, weeks before the mandatory shutdown. The members waited patiently as other events (sports, theater, the pub) slowly returned. During that year, the same shacks suddenly went viral on TikTok, bringing a whole new generation into the salty fold.
But everyone at the crowded bar agrees: Sea shacks don’t work at Zoom.
The first Monday back, it is very crowded and hot, and the sides of the pier bar have wooden walls and are closed. They seem to shake from the sound, like the hull of a large ship.
The singers begin, as always, with the South Australia work song, and people bang on tables, bang, clap, and hit a stool like a bongo. Outside, there are more people waiting to be let in.
Tom Hanson, 70, and a 40-year veteran of the folk music scene, says it has been “depressing” without the joy of these communal nights.
“I have missed teaching youth and camaraderie. And the joy I get from the young people who carry on the tradition is fantastic.
“The worst thing,” he says, “is that I missed my 70th birthday, which would have been a Monday night, shanty night!”
Norton then takes center 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 had been a shanty club regular for two years before Covid arrived.
“I played the horn and the piano, and I sang a lot in choirs and I’ve been looking for a way out for a long time,” she says. “I really liked the old union songs, the songs of the workers.
“And actually, they took me 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 brought me here. And I’ve been coming here every night after that. “
Next to the room, Howard is singing. He tells Guardian Australia that he and his friends have been waiting for two hours, since 6.30pm. M. Without the shanty club, Howard says, “I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself.”
His partner, Lauren Hart, says that during the hiatus “our record collection kept getting old and old, until it was transformed into sea shacks.”
“The memories are coming back,” she says. “It’s not like karaoke where everyone hears the exact words, it’s more like a collective feeling.”
Boddington says this was the only way to get the club back – to wait until restrictions were loosened so it could be as full and personable as it used to be.
The shanty club, he says, is “much more flexible” than a choir. It is about closeness, communality, call and response, sharing a physical space, not singing perfectly in tune. “You can stand up, sit down, play a drum, whatever.
“We tried the Zoom cabins, that was horrible. That was a train wreck, we didn’t even spend 30 seconds before we stopped it.
“In this place, there is a lot of sweat and a lot of close projection. So we didn’t want to risk it, coming back too soon … [And with] For 10 to 12 people, it will sound good, but it won’t sound like the shanty club that people remember.
“It’s about having enough people so that when you listen to it, a recording speaker almost goes out. There is a lot of noise, a lot of joy, that is what you want to return to. You don’t want to go back to half mast. “
In the middle of the night, the group pauses for a moment. Boddington tells them that a Dock regular died on Sunday, a man who loved shacks and would have attended the first night back.
“He lived big and loose,” he says. “Sing wild and loud for him.”
And they do. They dive into the Scottish Shack Doon in the Wee Room. Tables are beaten and walls are shaking. “We are all in the small room, under the stairs,” he sings. “Everybody is happy. Everybody is there. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism