The Titanic & the BluesOn April the 10th 1912 the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton. Shortly before midnight on the 14 of April she struck an iceberg and, a little over two and a half hours later, she sank with the loss of 1,517 passengers and crew. Considering the enormity of the disaster it is not surprising that a great number of songs were either written about the tragedy or referred to it in one form or another. The number of blues, however, appears to be relatively small, although the number recorded probably does not properly reflect either of the number of blues that were composed or the order in which they were written, nor, for that matter, when they were written.†
Ma Rainey’s Titanic Man Blues recorded in New York in December 1925, is the first documented blues that refers in any way to the sinking although, in true blues fashion (and Ma Rainey style), the song refers not to the actual disaster but to her wastrel companion who is compared to the Titanic:
Rig you up like a ship at sea,
But you sunk an’ made a fool of me.‡
Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown’s Sinking of the Titanic [DB–1, p. 40-41], recorded in New Orleans on March the 11th 1927, is again a ballad of the disaster — essentially a broadside and, although it is included in blues discographies, it has little else to associate it with the blues. In fact, only Brown’s James Alley Blues is of any real consequence in this respect, all the rest of his recorded sides appear to be commercial, popular songs and the like.
A most excellent song, [Wasn’t It Sad] When That Great Ship Went Down, recorded by the husband and wife duo William & Versey Smith in August of the same year [DB–1, p. 408], is a later version of an original broadsheet written about the time of the sinking [Laws, D 24], of the same title, but also known as both The Titanic, and Husbands & Wives, and even as a combination of these two titles. The Smith’s version is a blues adaptation sung with a wonderfully wild blues spirit. Pink Anderson’s The Ship Titanic is a later recording of this song.
In December, 1929 Blind Willie Johnson recorded his great, gospel blues God Moves on the Water and, four years later, a variant of the song was collected by the Lomax’s, from the singing of “Lightning” Washington, at the Darrington State Farm (penitentiary), in Sandy Point, Texas.
‘Hi’ Henry Brown’s Titanic Blues (1932) is a legitimate blues and, like Leadbelly’s The Titanic [LS, p.26] tells the tale again from the disaster point of view. Brown’s Titanic has another important attachment to blues history. Brown is apparently accompanied on the recording by Charlie Jordan (aka “Uncle Skipper”), who is cited elsewhere on this website in connection with his own song Keep It Clean. The words of Brown’s Titanic can be found in Bob Macleod’s transcriptions [Y2, p. 96].
Leadbelly’s The Titanic was probably composed by him in the ’Thirties (notwithstanding his claim to have written it in 1912)* but is adapted from Virginia Liston’s Titanic Blues and was not recorded by him until his Library of Congress, Folkways, Last Sessions recordings of 1948.
Today, Ma Rainey’s Titanic Man Blues can be found in the repertoire of Traditional jazz bands, usually without ‘Man’ of the title, presumably so that the sexes can be changed round to accommodate male singer’s identity. Leadbelly’s Titanic remains a staple of acoustic blues singers, and When That Great Ship Went Down, outside its brief adoption into the blues repertoire, has remained in the white, folk music tradition since being recorded by Woody Guthrie and, subsequently, being taken up by Pete Seeger in particular.
† This essay does not include the white, Country Music songs about the Titanic disaster.
For some early songs in this genre, the songs The Titanic, recorded by Earnest Stoneman in 1924 & 1925, The Last Scene of the Titanic, recorded by Frank Hutchison in 1927, and Down With the Old Canoe, recorded by Howard and Dorsey Dixon in 1938, are recommended. For more details see Tony Russell’s discography of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press, cited below.
‡ These two lines, the first couplet on the second verse, are invariably transcribed incorrectly, even though the whole point of the song’s title relys upon them.
* He also claimed to have written Midnight Special Blues, Ella Speed, and a multitude of other songs that were either documented or recorded considerably earlier than his recordings of them.
Ella Speed is notable for having been published as a broadside about the time of Ella Speed’s murder in New Orleans, in 1894, when Leadbelly was five or six years old.
ASCH Moses and Alan LOMAX. (1962) The Leadbelly Songbook [LS]. Oak Publications, New York
DIXON, Robert M.W., John GODRICH & Howard RYE. (1997) Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. The Clarendon Press, Oxford (Fourth Edition).
LAWS, G. Malcolm Jr. (1964) Native American Balladry. American Folklore Society, Philadelphia
LIEB, Sandra R. (1981) Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst
Macleod, R. R. (1994) Document Blues – 1 [DB1]. Pat Publications, Edinburgh
Macleod, R. R. (1992) Yazoo 21 – 83 [Y2]. Pat Publications, Edinburgh
RUSSELL, Tony. (2004) Country Music Records A Discography, 1921-1942. Oxford University Press, Oxford
SAPOZNIK, Henry “Hank”. (2010) People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938 [3-CD set] Tompkins Square TSO 2509