It’s not every day that you’re treated to a concert in a video game (unless it’s Fortnite), but for some fortunate Sea of Thieves players, it’s happened when they stumbled across the Bristol-based acappella folk group The Longest Johns. The group has become legendary among some of the game’s most ardent admirers — not for grinding out its numerous trading factions and sporting garish purple ensembles, but for merging their love of sea shanties with the nautical nonsense of Rare’s aquatic sandbox.
A Seafarer’s Song
Having come together quite by accident at a performing arts charity, The Longest Johns were inspired to form after discovering a shared love of traditional folk acts such as Stan Rogers and Fisherman’s Friends.
“When we first started out, we didn’t have much knowledge at all [about shanties],” says Jonathan Darley, better known as JD, one of the band’s four vocalists. “Over the years, we’ve learned so much through researching songs and speaking to other singers who are much more knowledgeable than us. The songs are often a bizarre combination of real-life stories and struggles mashed with some nonsense. This adds to the earthy reality and storytelling of a lot of the songs, as especially with the shanties, the singer may have to make up verses on the fly if the job they were singing for hadn’t been finished.”
Shanties have been an integral part of the seafaring mythos for years, which makes them a perfect fit for Sea of Thieves. Sailing across the churning blue surf on a creaking vessel, the rhythmic pumping of lungs would be used to disguise the hard work performed by calloused hands and to raise the spirits of all onboard. Possibly originating from the French word for singing, chanter, these songs covered a range of topics that reflected sailors’ daily lives and their thoughts of home.
While the tradition has fallen out of favor among those who work on the seas today, it has found a second wind among folk musicians who are trying to keep it alive for new generations — folk musicians like The Longest Johns.
Silencing the Cannons
The group first heard about Rare’s pirate playground Sea of Thieves prior to the game’s public beta, as Darley’s brother had been involved in the game’s early testing. Having learned what the game was and that they could communicate with other players, the thought immediately sprang to mind to start making videos where they performed for the other pirates on the server.
Jumping into a crew together, the four musicians set sail in search of other ships to serenade. But that proved more difficult than they expected. In Sea of Thieves‘ early days, the oceans were lousy with cannon fire as inexperienced crews familiarized themselves with their ships’ arsenals on their quest for booty. Cooperation was a rare occurrence and the lust for gold proved too tempting for some players to put down their cutlass and pick up a grog. In spite of this, though, The Longest Johns did eventually locate a crew who were willing to participate, albeit after a tense encounter out at sea.
“The most memorable [moment] is still probably the first time we went to sing at strangers in the beta,” says Darley. “We had been trying for over an hour and had no luck, but then we found a ship that had killed us earlier and began singing at them. They stopped shooting and came aboard and they were gobsmacked! We ended up just playing, sailing and singing with them for over an hour afterwards and had a wonderful time!”
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The Great Gig in the Sea
Getting good reactions from other crews can prove tricky, however, which is why the group created the “Open Crewsing,” series, in which they perform to random crewmates through matchmaking.
In their first video as part of this series, The Longest Johns encounter a brand-new player and welcome them to Sea of Thieves with a shanty. The video then shows a collection of highlights from fighting skeleton ships to marooning an errant player, before ending with some lovely words of praise.
“When we’ve been doing open crewsing, it’s been much more reliable,” Darley comments. “Even though we may get a lot of people that don’t have mics or react, it’s very easy to quickly load into another crew and try again. It feels really good doing these as well as a lot of the players that choose open crews are often quite new, so it’s a really lovely way to welcome them into the game.”
In another video, On a Quest to find Friendship, you can see some of these problems in action. Loading into a random crew of players, the group struggles to find players to communicate with, with those they meet dropping out of the session sporadically. The band’s deadpan responses, however, help everything to stay on course until they find someone to lend an ear.
These videos have quickly gained attention among members of the game’s community, who have turned to the band to provide entertainment for their social events. These include DreadPirateDoug, the organizer of the Race of Legends, who wanted the band for some pre-race entertainment, and the Twitch streamer Krotukk, who asked the group to perform to a collection of sea dogs and swabbies at a concert at the Sea Dog’s Tavern.
“The concert we performed was a truly memorable experience,” says Darley. “It was something we’d wanted to do for a long time and was put together by our friend Krotukk. As part of one of the server takeovers he arranges, he organised for everybody on the server to meet at the same place at the same time for the performance. It looked and felt like being at one of the coolest gig venues ever and was such a pleasure to sing to his fabulous team and our fans alike.”
An interesting side effect of all this attention is that The Longest Johns have now found a new audience: people much younger than the typical folk music fan.
“Through singing in games, we’ve managed to find a whole wealth of people who really like folk music and just never knew it before,” Darley explains. “It’s really inspiring to think that we’re able to reach people who could end up becoming the future of folk music, especially as its followers have been dwindling a lot over recent years.”
Not only is it refreshing to see a band using video games to reach a new audience in this way, it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of accidentally stumbling across the group while out on the seas. Sea of Thieves’ sandbox provides a ton of surprises for players to encounter: everything from game shows to cat puppets. Sailing across the ocean, I know I’ll be keeping an ear to the stern and an eye on the horizon in future in the hopes of catching a performance.