By Tristra Newyear Yeager
The 2020 resurgence of “Wellerman,” the jaunty sea shanty that won over TikTok, took the world by surprise, but it was just the latest in a string of pop culture moments that prove how relevant vocal traditions can be for new listeners. A quick glance back reveals a string of “viral” vocal traditions. There was the Bulgarian women’s choir craze in the 80s, and the club music obsession with Gregorian Chant in the 90s, not to mention pop explorers from Kate Bush to Kendrick Lamar and D Smoke who have brought unexpected, vocal tradition-inspired collaborations to pop radio.
Beyond all fads, however, there’s a reason these moments happen: Vocal music goes deep. It can forge some of the strongest connections across human cultures, opening up a hidden portal that makes 19th-century maritime work ditties or feasting songs from the Caucasus feel as engaging and relevant as any pop anthem.
Forging a link with listeners
Vocal traditions use the power of the human voice to tear down the wall between singer and listener, inviting everyone to join in. As experienced presenter Lisa Schwartz, Festival Director for the Philadelphia Folksong Society, puts it, “it’s the connective tissue for this true engagement” between performer and audience, no matter what cultural gulf may separate them.
There’s a fundamental reason baked into the traditions themselves. Vocal music evolved to erase boundaries between singer and listener. Most traditional vocal settings weren’t concerts, but sing-a-longs or calls and response sessions, and that feeling remains embedded in the music itself. “In most of the music I’m doing these days, singing is a way to get people to sing back at me,” laughs Seán Dagher, a prolific tradition explorer who is currently diving into sea shanties and whose work wowed millions of gamers thanks to his contribution to the Assassin’s Creed series. “I can feel when I’m projecting the way I want to, because it’s like a fishing line. I can hook them and they send the energy back to me.”
“We love to sing along, that’s how we show artists appreciation,” notes Schwartz. She’s seen that “the audience doesn’t need to know the words; they will follow the melody and hum. That response happens because they can’t help themselves. They want to give back to the artists.”
Yet more than creating those high-octane “everybody now” moments, many vocal traditions simultaneously serve to bridge gaps and mediate conflicts. Buba Murgulia, seasoned singer and founder of Georgian vocal ensemble Iberi, gives a stunning example from one of his group’s performances back home: “We noticed one evening that two men had a problem. Supra,” the feasting occasions where people gather, eat amazing food, and sing for hours, “is a place where you do not do those things. If someone wants to have a fight, they have to go somewhere else. We started to sing a song that wishes people long life and blessings. The guys chilled out and sang together, and the problems were gone.”
For many presenters, this quality is one they seek out for their programming, because they aim to unite people and demonstrate commonalities that we often disregard in our everyday lives. Darek Mazzone, who curates the SAMA series in Seattle, among other festivals and events, sees vocal traditions as a cornerstone of his artistic goals and transcendent message. “Vocal traditions are super important,” he reflects. “They are the most potent example of what I’m trying to achieve. Instruments are often trying to reproduce the voice, yet it’s remarkably simple to create a transcendent experience with a chorus of voices. It’s very powerful but very subtle and can bring people closer.”
This intimacy is conjured by the human voice itself, with its great flexibility and dual roles. “There are so many possibilities that you have with the human voice. You can be a storyteller and an instrument at the same time,” explains Emma Björling of the Swedish vocal group, Kongero. “My goal has always been to push the boundaries of what we think we can do.”
The limits are often where emotional moments happen, in the sounds that mirror the body’s reactions to excitement, elation, or abiding calm, the breath, calls, and laughs that can be transmuted into ornaments or vocal timbre. At the same time, specific details of a life come across in the lyrics, something that can shine a light on our past and make us consider our present. Björling and Kongero, for example, often explore medieval women’s lives and fates, facts and stories recorded in songs but almost exclusively ignored in other historical sources. These tales can come to life and leap from tale to feelings, moving beyond their linguistic content, when skilled singers come into play.
When a song is sung well, it holds the heart of the singer, and that impacts the listener, no matter what language gap is involved. “We’re sharing our hearts when we’re singing. We’re sharing our relations with each other, we’re sharing our stories,” Murgulia notes. “Your thinking disappears. This comes from the heart. When other people are singing, it’s the highest point of your life. You feel at that time that everything is good, that everything good that you can feel is turned on.” That joy and warmth aren’t lost on the audience.
Songs never rest
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of vocal traditions’ emotional depth and innate interactivity is that they inspire constant change and tweaks to make a song fresh. Traditional songs continue to live and evolve, even far from their place of origin and among new potential singers and fans.
Practitioners see this as part and parcel of their relationship with their singing. They aren’t erecting a virtual song museum; they are sharing an experience that connects to the contemporary world. “I am trying to take the best elements of the existing tradition, filter it through my own musical background, and present it in a way that gives audience members a taste of where we’ve come from and where we might go,” says Dagher. “I try to do it in a way that lets them feel like they can join. We can all benefit from what the music has been through.”
What the music has been through can feel eerily familiar to today’s listener. Dagher looks at the wild yarns in sea shanties as a thread that ties laborers long gone to living music lovers. “Sea shanties are exaggerated, though there’s truth in them. Exaggeration is helpful. If we’re doing something hard, but we’re singing about other suckers who have it even worse, that helps us. That’s all relevant,” Dagher explains. “There are elements that apply to work today. That’s something we still need and want to do, complaining about our jobs.” Singing about these everyday joys and struggles can forge a new, thrilling link between singer and listener.
Vocal traditions often turn listeners into singers, and that process can instill greater curiosity and confidence in audiences.”There’s a marvelling in some ways. As people learn a bit of a tradition and sing along, they often tell me, ‘I didn’t know I would like this.’ They leave determined to Google something or learn more about this tradition,” Schwartz explains. “People feel pride when they don’t just go check out their favorite artists they know inside and out. They are proud that they go and listen to something they’ve never heard.”
Björling is an old hand at leading workshops that bring music lovers deeper into the traditions she knows best, even those who can’t speak a word of Swedish. “Most of the workshops we do abroad are with non-Swedish speakers. They struggle with the Swedish language. But what we do in that moment, those few hours we spend together, builds bridges,” she reflects. “You connect when you sing together. No one is sitting staring at a paper. Eyes are meeting all the time. We’re reading each other’s body language and making it swing together in whatever language! That connects people in a way that you can’t really do in that short time otherwise.”
Sharing a song creates an easy intimacy hard to find in other musical practices. Its transformative power sticks with us, even when the songs are thousands of years old. As Murgulia puts it, “Singing is a force that helps people fight their problems and gives them strength of spirit. The Georgian people took great care of our unique musical language. Now we are sharing it with everyone.”
Björling, Dagher, and Murgulia all feel what scientists have begun to uncover as they study how singing affects cognition, mental health, and even physical stamina: when we sing songs, we link different parts of our brains, reduce stress, and build bonds between us. Vocal traditions impart these health benefits, making a musical experience with unaccompanied singers and new songs more than just entertaining. It can have profound physical and emotional impacts on your audiences.
Thinking about adding vocal traditions to your programming? Hear and see more about the artists mentioned here at
Sean Dagher: https://canismusic.com/artist/sean-dagher/
Skye Consort & Emma Björling: https://canismusic.com/artist/skye-consort-emma-bjorling/