Monday, April 16, 2012

Folk Songs About the Titanic

“Pride goes before destruction”
by Robert A. Waters

“Even God couldn’t sink her,” said Captain Edward Smith, speaking of the great ship Titanic. Just days later, the White Star Line vessel scraped an iceberg, filled with water, and plunged into the icy Atlantic. 1,523 people, more than the inhabitants of some small towns, died.

To the average citizen, the disaster was pregnant with meaning. It quickly became a symbol of the frailty of human existence in the face of nature. The ship also came to represent man's over-confidence in the increasing use of technology.

Religious people considered Captain Smith's pronouncement that God couldn't sink the ship to be little short of blasphemy. So when the Titanic plunged into the sea, it was taken by many to mean that God had taught humankind a lesson.

The disparity of the passengers didn't go unnoticed. Songs and poems railed against the rich, arrogant capitalists who were seen to have oppressed the poor.

All in all, the figurative meaning of the debacle wasn't lost on the masses.

Poets and folk singers were quick to memorialize the disaster. Less than a week after the catastrophe, a blind preacher in New York is said to have sold broadsides entitled, “Didn’t That Ship Go Down?”

Blues singers, gospel singers, folk artists, and hillbilly musicians all performed their own songs about the tragedy. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie created versions of the events that took place that night in 1912. Two black gospel singers, William and Versey Smith, recorded a song called, “When That Great Ship Went Down,” in 1927. Versey played a washboard while her husband William strummed a guitar and sang.

Roy Acuff first recorded his version of “Titanic” in 1956. Acuff, a native of Tennessee, influenced generations of country music artists with his spare, traditional sound. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he dominated the hillbilly charts with songs such as, “The Great Speckled Bird,” “Wabash Cannonball,” and “Wreck on the Highway.” Many of his songs had a moral theme, so “Titanic” fit into his repertoire perfectly.

Here are the lyrics to Acuff's song as sung by Graveyard Johnny Fast.


It was on one Monday morning about one o'clock
When that great Titanic began to reel and rock,
People began to scream and cry
Saying, "Oh! Lord, we’re bound to die."
It was sad when that great ship went down.

CHORUS: It was sad when that great ship went down,
It was sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and their wives,
Little children lost their lives,
It was sad when that great ship went down.

When building that great ship, they said what they would do.
They said that they could build a ship that water could not go through,
God with power in his hand, showed the world it could not stand,
It was sad when that great ship went down.


When that great ship left England, she was making for the shore
When the rich declared they would not ride with the poor.
So they put the poor below and they were the first to go,
It was sad when that great ship went down.


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