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The Longest Johns standing against a green wall gazing into the camera

The Longest Johns interview

"Before lockdown, we could just about fill a pub in Bristol. Two years later... well, it's been very odd." The Longest Johns discuss taking traditional songs to some of the biggest audiences ever.

You remember that ‘Wellerman’ craze, right? How could you forget? Flying the tradfolk flag at the centre of it all were The Longest Johns, a shanty-singing four-piece based in Bristol, consisting of Robbie Sattin, Dave Robinson, Andy Yates, and JD (Jon Darley). While the song may have been written in the 1860s, the band’s approach to performing traditional music is entirely new, making use of massive multiplayer online gaming platforms to access audiences that other traditional singers can only dream about. Their recording of ‘Wellerman’ has been heard by 46 million people on Spotify, and their other songs are into the tens of millions, too. Few other traditional performers have reached crowds of this size.

Their rise to prominence is synonymous with lockdown. While the band were already enjoying a level of success before March 2020, the so-called Shanty-Tok craze (named after TikTok, one of the digital platforms on which the song found a vast audience) was fuelled by a sea of people, stuck at home, looking for ways to reach out to one another. As lockdown ended, The Longest Johns found themselves emerging into a very different world – one where they were suddenly in much greater demand, performing in much bigger venues that easily sold out. If everyone’s lockdown can be described differently, for these four Bristol folk singers, the words ‘life-altering’ don’t even begin to cover it.

On January 28th, the band will release a new album, Smoke & Oakum, containing old songs that in some way look forward. Hopefulness is the central theme, and they’ve selected from their traditional repertoire accordingly. We sat down with Andy, Robbie, and Dave (JD was unfortunately unwell) to talk about their roots in the Bristol singarounds, song selecting, the importance of acknowledging your sources, the latest album, and – of course – taking sea shanties to vast digital audiences.

Folk music is supposed to be used and changed and mucked about with

Robbie Sattin, The Longest Johns

I was introduced to JD by Sid Goldsmith, another Bristol-based traditional folk singer. You guys must know him, right?

Dave Robinson: Yes, we know Sid well.

Great. So, I’m wondering if you were part of the folk singaround sessions that Jimmy and Sid ran in Bristol. Is that how you got into traditional music?

DR: I think we came to the singaround sessions and folk scene after we started singing shanties together, which we did almost by accident. We’d come across sea shanties and liked them, and we had various levels of interest in folk and folk-adjacent things like folk punk and that sort of stuff. But then, through posting some shanty videos online, we got introduced into the shanty scene and the wider folk scene as well. From there, we started getting involved in Bristol folk stuff and met Jimmy and Sid and lots of other people around the area.

Is it the case that you met and started singing at a barbecue?

Andy Yates: Yeah, we were all friends and work colleagues working for the same place, and we attended a Queen’s Jubilee barbecue in 2012 and we were like, “Oh, we’ve all been listening to Fisherman’s Friends and a bit of Stan Rodgers”, so we just thought we’d sing some of their songs for fun. And then we realised that it actually sounded good.

DR: Yeah, we were just singing at the barbecue in a little corner by ourselves, like, “Oh, this actually sounds really good and feels quite natural and easy.”

AY: It doesn’t feel offensive [laughs].

DR: One of our members was running an open mic at the time, so we just went down there and tried the songs out to great enjoyment from everybody. And we haven’t stopped since.

Are you still involved with the Bristol folk scene? I noticed that JD, who can’t be with us today, is singing backing vocals on the new Nick Hart album.

DR: Yeah, although it’s obviously been a bit hard for the last couple of years. There have been no folk sessions or singarounds, and I think that was one of the main ways we’d keep in touch with people. So it will be nice when that sort of thing starts back up again.

AY: Even live shows have only just started cropping up, really, though we are way busier than we were before.

You’re touring the UK and the States, aren’t you?

DR: Yes, that’s right. And a few dates in France later in the year as well.

Have you done much gigging abroad already?

DR: Only in Europe. Never in the US.

I’m guessing that, in terms of the number of streams and listens, The Longest Johns must be the most listened to traditional singers ever. As of this morning, your version of ‘Wellerman’ had been streamed 46 million times on Spotify alone. I can’t think of any other traditional musicians who have reached an audience that huge. Do you find that your fans start to follow you and then discover more of the tradition? Are they interested in where these songs have come from, and are you able to advise them on how to get further involved, or do they just stop with the shanties?

Robbie Sattin: We love folk music and we’ve done folk music to the best of our ability, certainly. But it’s that extra step that we took with just making sure our online presence was tight, combining it with things like playing Sea of Thieves, the computer game where you play with your little pirate and you sail around the world. The way we approached that, and the way we dealt with the Internet age, isn’t something we see from many folk musicians, which is understandable because folk tends to be traditional, harking back to the old times. And the idea of doing that with all this technology going on, I don’t see many other bands making use of that. So I’d certainly put our success down to being able to make those combinations succinctly.

DR: I think a lot of people have got into the scene both through us and through other things that have been popular in the last few years. It’s been really nice to see, and to be able to partner with some of them. We’ve got some friends in Barcelona called El Pony Pisador – Catalonian for “prancing pony” – who first came to see us at the Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival a few years ago, and we kind of met them there. And then a year or two later they came to the UK and were performing with their band and we were blown away by the amazing instrumentation, at a time when we were still mostly acapella. And I think we’ve kind of influenced each other to improve the instrumentation, on our part, and the acapella vocals on theirs.

So, tell me a little bit about the YouTube and the Twitch side of things, because you touched on this earlier as a way that you’ve managed to bring this kind of music to a bigger audience. Is that something that you did anyway? Were you gamers already, or did you think this could be an interesting avenue to explore? How did that evolve?

AY: I think a little bit of both, really. When we first started the band, we were putting stuff up on YouTube and I think, in terms of sea shanty music, there wasn’t a tonne of people doing that kind of thing. So our videos somehow managed to get quite a lot of attention from people, even though, when I look back on them, they weren’t very well made and sounded a bit rubbish.

A few years in, we’d still been doing YouTube every now and again, but it was only around 2018 or 2019 that we decided to try and make a video a week and put it out regularly on a Wednesday. When we started doing that, our YouTube subscribers really started kicking up and we found it was a really good way to create an online community. And from that, we started streaming on Twitch with the Sea of Thieves thing.

It was JD’s brother’s idea. When the game came out, he was like, “This game is perfect for you guys to just play and sing shanties at people and record it.” So we did that and it was really fun, and it worked really well. So we got a lot of younger people interested in sea shanties, which is really cool. Our online audience is much bigger now in the US than it is in the UK. It’s really exciting.

Sometimes people would just be like, “Why are you making so much noise?” and proceed to run us through!

Andy Yates, The Longest Johns

Just to explain, because we’ll have readers who are not gamers: Sea of Thieves is an open-world game, meaning anyone online can join in at any given time, and you guys sort of hijack other gamers and sing shanties at them. Is that how it works?

AY: Yeah, pretty much. So you make a crew, you man a ship, and you sail around doing stuff. You might run into other people also on a ship in another part of the world. When you encounter those people, it can get quite tense and interesting. Are we going to fight? Are we going to make friends? So we thought, “What if we just sing at people and see what their reaction is?” It’s a really fun way of playing a game.

What reaction do you get from other players?

AY: Mostly good. Sometimes they’d just be like, “Why are you making so much noise?” and proceed to run us through!

DR: We’re now at the point where one in 10 people in the game will either know us as The Longest Johns or have heard of the people who sing sea shanties on Sea of Thieves, and therefore we get a bit of recognition.

Obviously, I’m going to ask you about ‘Wellerman’, because that must have been a key moment in your growing reputation. But first of all, I wonder – if you don’t mind me asking – whether the success you’ve had has changed things for you. Have your lifestyles been altered in any way?

DR: I think it’s only really just started to, because obviously everything kicked off during lockdown, so we were still stuck at home. But the number of Zoom meetings we had to have increased drastically [laughs]. But it’s only really now that we’re starting to get out and gig again and be able to meet up with all these fans who have previously just been numbers on the Internet. It’s only really now that it’s been able to sink in. It’s obviously the end goal for most bands to be able to be out there gigging and have the freedom that success provides to be able to do what you want and not have to grind away at the day job at the same time.

Before lockdown, we could just about fill a pub in Bristol. Two years later… well, it’s been very odd

Robbie Sattin, The Longest Johns

RS: It’s very interesting coming back and finding all that multiplied. We all went into hibernation in… when, March 2020? I don’t even know what year it is anymore [laughs]. March 2020? That sounds about right. And then all this happens during that time, and when we come out the end of it, not only do we suddenly have shows at the Islington Academy in London, and Latitude Festival, but there are all these people turning up with our shirts on and screaming the music back at us. Before lockdown, we could just about fill a pub in Bristol, our hometown. Two years later, not having known that this whole thing is really growing on the outside… well, it’s been very odd.

So, is it now the case that you have been able to give up your day jobs? Is this what you do now?

DR: Yeah, we’d actually done that maybe six months to a year, depending on which band member you talk to, before the whole ‘Wellerman’ thing kicked off during lockdown.

RS: The previous January, I think it was.

DR: We’ve seen the growth slowly pick up over time, and then we made the big leap to being a full-time band.

RS: We don’t have very expensive tastes anyway, so perhaps it’s easier for us than others [laughs].

You’re about to release Smoke & Oakam. I’m interested in how you go about curating your songs. When I talk to a lot of traditional singers, they talk about listening to source singers or The Voice of the People to build their repertoire. How do you guys do it? Is it the same sort of thing for you? Are you thumbing through Stan Hugill’s Sea Shanties book? How do you go about choosing what you’re going to put on a record?

DR: For this album, we spent a good few weeks away at an Airbnb trying to work out what we were going to put on it and how we wanted it to sound. Then we came up with a big long list of stuff: a few things that we’ve done for a while but never recorded, some stuff that we found specific people doing, or maybe a classic folk song that we haven’t heard a new and interesting recording of, and then some original stuff that we’ve written. We had a big long list of stuff and then, as we slowly whittled it down, it formed itself into an album that really gelled together. The more we worked on it, the more it came together as a complete package and we knew it was going to be something special.

RS: I’m interested in the response from other groups that you’ve asked the same question to. You said they, “listen to the voice of the people”. Do you mean they go to folk singarounds?

The Voice of the People is a compilation released by Topic Records, the world’s oldest independent record company. They’re quite interesting. They started out in the 1930s as the audio division of the communist-run Workers Music Association. As I understand it, if you became a fully signed-up member of the WMA, they used to send out a kind of flexi vinyl disc featuring a song that you could learn to sing in your workplace and as part of your union.

RS: That’s thinking outside the box, isn’t it?

Yes, I’d say so. Their first release was called ‘The Man That Waters the Workers’ Beer’. Eventually, Topic Records separated out from the WMA, and they became known for releasing recordings of traditional folk music. They might go into a pub and record whoever the local bloke might be who knew all the local songs. So you get these really scratchy, often quite bad recordings – but full of atmosphere – of people singing traditional songs in pubs back in a time when people sang to each other regularly in that manner.

About 20 years ago, they released a collection called The Voice of the People. It was about 20 CDs of field recordings – people singing, often unacompanied. They are all available on Spotify, if you want to hear them. Quite a lot of traditional singers that I know go to The Voice of the People to find songs to sing. There are one or two CDs there that specialise in shanties, or songs of the sea. It’s worth checking out.

RS: I’ll have to have a listen to that.

Anyway, I was interested in how you pick your songs. As an example, there’s a track on Smoke & Oakum called ‘Hog Eye Man’. Martin Carthy did a version, and Faustus did a great version (as ‘Og’s Eye Man’). I’m interested in how your version and arrangement came about.

AY: We’d been singing that one for a while. It’s one of those shanties, I guess, that you hear at the sea shanty festivals, and it’s relatively well-known. A lot of the time I’ll either hear a new song because somebody sang it at a singaround, or I’ve heard it a festival and I’ve thought, “That’s interesting.” And then I’ll do a dive into the history and see what it’s about. I heard ‘Hog Eye Man’ a while ago and thought it was a pretty cool song. I was sitting there messing around on my banjo trying to think of an interesting way to sing it that wasn’t just like everybody else.

DR: We’d been performing it acapella for a few years at that point. If there are songs that a lot of people know, we don’t want to just record another version that people might have heard before. We want to try and bring something new and interesting to it.

AY: I think it was the Faustus version you talked about. When I heard that, it kind of opened up my musical brain a little bit and I was like, “Oh, maybe it can be a little bit groovy and a bit more aggressive.”

It’s a great version, and it’s really interesting to compare the energy of the Martin Carthy version, for example, with that full-force band style. Obviously, you each have vocal parts that you take – I know JD takes the bass, for example – but have you found that there’s a formula in the way that you come to arrange your songs?

RS: We all take the lead on different songs. It tends to be the person who’s written or brought a song to the band that ends up taking the lead, and then everyone else fits around them. So, me, Dave and Andy – I think it’s fair to say we all have a similar range, so it’s usually JD on the bass unless he’s leading it, in which case it’s usually Dave on the bass, and then me and Andy fill in above him. So, we mess around with the song until it feels right, really. There isn’t really a set way.

AY: We don’t read music. We never use a score.

RS: There are a few songs where, if it’s not sounding good after we’ve mucked about with it, one of us will sit down at a piano and figure out some actual parts to sing from. But, for the most part, it’s just messing around with it until it sounds good.

Let’s take a song like ‘Thousands or More’, which you’ve created a really beautiful version of on the new album. It would be interesting to know what the journey was – where one of you picked that song up, and the process it went through to arrive at The Longest Johns’ version that you hear Smoke & Oakum.

DR: I think that’s one of the ones that Andy picked up originally and started doing at singarounds and folk nights, and we’d all just be joining in with the crowd. Eventually, it got to the point where we had to sit down and double-check our harmonies to make sure we were all doing something that worked.

AY: It’s funny that you mention ‘Thousand or More’ because the first time I heard that song was Sid Goldsmith singing it.

I thought that might be the case. I’ve heard Jimmy & Sid singing it, too, and their performance of it is really moving.

AY: Yeah. So we can thank him for that. I heard him do it at a singaround. We go to that Bristol singaround quite a lot, and it popped up every now and again. I thought, “This is a really great song”, and I did a bit of research on it. I’ve just been singing it myself at other singarounds and shanty festivals and late-night folk happenings.

RS: The thing about that one, I suppose, is that it’s one of those instantaneous songs. That’s what we thought the first time we heard it. By the end of the song… let’s just say it’s not difficult to pick up. The theme running through this album is hopefulness and looking to the future. I think that one is just such a great song that everyone can get behind – unless you’re trying not to drink too much, in which case maybe leave out verse four [laughs]. That was the point, and why we put it on the album. I did wonder whether, when Sid heard this, he was going to be like, “You got that from me!” But I guess folk music is supposed to be used and changed and mucked about with.

Yeah, absolutely. Actually, I perform ‘Shallow Brown’, and I learned that from the singing of Jimmy and Sid. As you say, that’s the lovely thing about it. You pick these songs up at singarounds, or wherever, and the songs come and live with you for a little bit and then they might go and live with somebody else. I think people are really fine with it, especially if you credit them and say, “This is who I learned this song from.”

RS: Yeah. None of the songs are owned by anyone. That’s the weird thing. There are different versions and you can say, “We’ve got that from there, or we got that from here”, which is quite nice and sort of freeing in a way. When people sing songs that are clearly like our versions, it’s a compliment. I think it’s a cultural thing, but the Chinese think of it in a similar way. They don’t see copying in the same way that we do. They see it as the ultimate act of respect to copy something, because it’s like saying, “I admire what you do so much that I want to do it myself to the best of my ability.” I see it like that, really. As I say, these are folk songs. They’re part of our shared heritage. They should absolutely be open to interpretation and free to use. I love that part of it.

And that brings us neatly back to ‘Wellerman’. As a traditional folk fan, you wait a lifetime for a traditional song to hit the top of the charts, and then the same one does it twice in a matter of weeks…

RS: Ah, but did you predict the dance remix?

I can’t say that I did. What’s the actual story with ‘Wellerman’? To those of us on the outside, it was kind of hard to see what was going on. So many versions of it appeared at once. How did that work? Did it start with your version, and then Nathan Evans picked it up? Or was he already doing it? How did it get passed along?

DR: I think we first heard it from our friends, Kimber’s Men, but I don’t think they had a recording of it, and it didn’t really exist in any significant way on any of the streaming services. And then we started to perform it ourselves, and I think it fairly quickly became one of our favourite songs. Then we started doing what we do with all of our songs, which is do them on live streams and incorporate them into the Sea of Thieves stuff. I think the second Sea of Thieves video we ever made involved ‘Wellerman’, and that kind of went viral and started getting shared around by LadBible and those sorts of websites.

We sent Nathan Evans a couple of messages when it all kicked off, but I guess everyone was so busy at that point

Dave Robinson, The Longest Johns

I’m not really sure exactly which came first, but there were a few different TikTok trends involving ‘Wellerman’, and people using the audio to make memes. And there were a few that really kicked off. Nathan Evans doing his own version was one of the ones going around at the time. And then, yeah, the mainstream started picking up on it. The record companies started calling us and started calling Nathan. We already had a version we’d recorded a couple of years before, so that was the one that started getting a bit of traction and got into the top 40, I think, a week before Nathan Evans’s dance remix came out.

Do you have any kind of relationship with him? Have you met him and sung it with him?

DR: No. We sent him a couple of messages when it all kicked off, but I guess everyone was so busy at that point. I don’t think we ever managed to get in any kind of contact.

That must have been crazy for you, that little period where suddenly Shanty-Tok was all anyone was talking about.

DR: Yeah. But, again, because we were all stuck at home there wasn’t really much to do other than browsing videos on the internet or watching the streaming numbers just tick up.

RS: We had a lot to do with all the record label stuff and all the interviews. It was just this, from nine to six or seven every day, for about two weeks solid.

DR: It’s so good to not be on Zoom doing interviews all the time [laughs].

RS: I like the occasional one! Don’t get me wrong [laughs].

Your reputation for shanty singing seems pretty secure, but do you think there’s anything left of that shanty craze a year on? Is there still a mass audience for shanties on the digital platforms, beyond, say, Sea of Thieves?

RS: It’s hard to make predictions, really. We know that we’ve got a lot of people who listen to us and love what we do, and it’s great to see the effect that that’s having down the line. But, to be honest, it’s still really difficult to tell what the lasting ramifications of all this will be, just because the world is still sort of making very tentative steps to come out of lockdown.

DR: I think ‘Wellerman’ was obviously a massive spike, but these things can’t last forever. We’ve got a fairly decent idea of how things went because we’ve got the graphs of streaming numbers and that sort of thing. But we’ve been seeing it slowly grow and grow over time, and the big spike came down on the other side, but there’s still more interest than there was before and it is still picking up. And people who find that they really like the shanties seem to get heavily into it, which I guess is the case with a lot of niche music genres. People who love it really love it, and that’s their main thing.

AY: I think what we found is that using things like Sea of Thieves and Twitch, we’ve been able to get sea shanties in front of people who would otherwise never have heard them before. Because a lot of the time with the sea shanty community in a local area, you won’t really know it exists unless you go looking for it. A lot of younger people are like, “Oh, this music is really great.” I think a lot of people love it – they just don’t know they love it.

RS: I can’t remember who said it, but somebody told JD that we were kind of like a gateway drug to folk music [laughs]. I’m happy with that.

To find out more about The Longest Johns, their new album Smoke & Oakum, and the forthcoming international tour, head to thelongestjohns.com. Head to the band’s Instagram page to see a pre-album community art event that they are posting in the lead-up to the launch.