When that great ship went down

The sinking of the Titanic quite inexplicably provided the inspiration for countless blues songs


Leadbelly.
Leadbelly.

It was almost 20 years ago, but I can still remember the agony I endured when I had to sit though a screening of James Cameron’s Titanic with a friend. Of course, the actual disaster was no joke. More than 1,500 people died when the massive liner sank on its maiden voyage on 15 April 1912. Death, it seems, chose its victims carefully; it was the Third Class passengers that suffered the most losses.

Musicians hold a special place in Titanic lore—the more celebrated victims include the group of musicians who carried on playing uplifting music on the freezing deck as the ship sank. Legend states that the very last song they played was the hymn, “Nearer, My God, To Thee”, though it is unlikely that it was the case. Almost 40,000 people lined the roads to attend the bandmaster, Wallace Hartley’s funeral in Lancashire.

Considering the age when that fateful voyage took place, it is not surprising that there was only one black person amongst the 2,224 passengers and crew. But the sinking of the Titanic was such a momentous event that it captured the imagination of ordinary blacks living in America. Even before the recording industry came to include black performers, there are accounts of travelling musicians singing songs about the sinking of the Titanic. What is interesting are the attitudes and opinions that these songs displayed.

Singing about natural and man-made disasters is not uncommon in African-American music, especially in blues and gospel. There are countless songs about the Great Depression in the 1930s and even before that, the Mississippi floods of 1927 (Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere; Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks”, which was “stolen” by Led Zep). But generally speaking, black artists rarely dealt with experiences that were not their own. In this respect, songs about the Titanic are quite an anomaly.

Some of the earliest known versions of songs about the Titanic were religious in nature. Two of the most famous songs were “God Moves on the Water” and “When That Great Ship Went Down”. Both of them allude to an opinion that was quite widespread immediately after the disaster—that it was God’s punishment for man’s hubris in thinking that the Titanic was unsinkable.

One of the earliest recorded versions of “When That Great Ship Went Down” by William and Versey Smith, date back to 1927. Other notable versions include one from the early 1950s by South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson (the very same, whose first name provided the inspiration for Pink Floyd’s nomenclature). Some of the most telling lines in the song include:

“The rich had declared they wouldn’t ride with the poor

So they put the poor below, they was first had to go

Wasn’t it sad when the great ship went down?”

There are also some versions of the tune by white artists, most notably one of the earliest country and hillbilly music stars, Ernest Stoneman. His “The Sinking Of The Titanic”, released on Okeh Records in 1924 sold over a million copies.

The question of morals also play a part in “God Moves On The Water”, the most famous version of it is from 1929 by the gospel blues guitar player, Blind Willie Johnson.

This song and its subsequent variations draw attention to man’s hubris, but also specifically names certain influential white people who perished in the accident—as if to say that no matter how much wealth you have, on the day of reckoning, it is of no use.

There are also songs that are secular in nature and take the form of ballads with a storyline. The most famous is “Sinking of the Titanic” by the little-known Richard “Rabbit” Brown.

Brown was already in his late 40s when he recorded the song in 1927. Brown belonged to the pre-blues era, when songsters sang on the streets, fairs and travelling medicine shows. The gist of his song seems to be that accidents are a part of life and usually we cannot do anything to avoid them. Another obscure New Orleans guitarist “Hi” Henry Brown recorded “Titanic Blues” in 1932. Though he uses some verses from the gospel tune by William and Versey Smith, Brown does not make any distinction between the pious and the amoral. The downbeat message seems to be that all of them died:

“Some was drinking, some was playing cards,

Some was in the corner, praying to their God,

Titanic sinking in the deep blue sea,

And the band all playing Nearer My God To Thee.”

But in the case of some other tunes, the very fact that blacks were not touched by the disaster was an important distinction. In these songs, the situation is used to dwell upon the racial equation among blacks and whites in America. In Leadbelly’s “The Titanic”, he brings in the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, who was of course nowhere near the mighty ship when it sailed the high seas. Nonetheless, Leadbelly sings:

“Jack Johnson wanted to get on board

Captain he says, ‘I ain’t haulin’ no coal’

Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well

Johnson was controversial—his boxing supremacy incited many riots among white people, who also did not like the fact that the boxer was married to a white woman on two separate occasions. One can almost hear the glee in Leadbelly’s voice when he implies that racial segregation played a part in saving a black man’s life.

The fascination with the Titanic slowly faded away with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but there are still stray tunes that indicate that the Titanic as a racial motif had not entirely faded.

The most startling example, and perhaps the most lewd as well, is “Hey Shine” by Delmar Evans from around 1970. He is accompanied by more famous musicians on the track: Johnny Otis and his then young son, Shuggie. The song is credited to the mischievously titled Snatch and the Poontangs, and the tune is derived from Johnny Otis’ “Willie And The Handjive”. The title of the song was surely not lost on blacks as “shine” was a derogatory term used by whites to indicate black people. But on this song, Shine is a hero. He is a black man who survived to tell the tale. While women were offering sexual favours and money for his help, Shine held his wits together. While white people thought he was stupid to jump into the water, the joke is ultimately on them. As the last telling verse states:

“When I jumped in the water

Everybody said, Look at that fool

But when that Titanic ship hit the bottom

I was in Harlem shootin’ pool.”

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