The third of my top ten Titanic songs, simply called The Titanic, was recorded by bluesman Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter in 1948. Listen to it by clicking on the link below.
Born around 1890, Leadbelly was raised on his parents’ farm in western Louisiana. In his original preamble to this recording, not included here, he recalled that The Titanic was the first song he learned to play on the 12-string guitar, back in 1912 when he worked as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “lead man”, on the road in Texas.
Sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment for murder in 1917, Leadbelly “sang his way out” by writing a song to Texas’ state governor pleading for a pardon, which he duly received in 1925. Five years later he was back in prison for assault, this time in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Penitentiary.
Folklorist John A Lomax “discovered” Leadbelly in Angola in 1934, and took this photo, which shows him in the foreground. Lomax was searching for songs rather than singers, and concentrated on prisons on the basis that men serving long sentences would be “uncontaminated” by newer material. In Leadbelly, he swiftly recognized that he’d hit the motherlode. Huddie was a true “songster”, who combined an extraordinary repertoire of songs and styles with a compelling physical presence. Amazingly, he “sang his way out” again, when a similar plea to the governor of Louisiana, recorded and delivered by Lomax, brought quick results.
In a relationship that to modern sensibilities seems questionable to say the least, the newly freed Leadbelly went into Lomax’s service, and headed North. As well as acting as Lomax’s driver and talent scout, Leadbelly appeared on stage as a sort of living example during his lectures on folklore – at times posing in striped prison uniform to add an extra frisson – and also shared copyright on the songs the two men published.
Some historians have argued that Leadbelly actually composed The Titanic himself, long after 1912, though its refrain of “Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well” is strongly reminsicent of Virginia Liston’s 1926 Titanic Blues. In any case, Leadbelly’s gift for a tune, and knack with paring lyrics down to the bare essentials, make this the catchiest Titanic song of them all. Historically it’s most noteworthy for its reference to heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, allegedly refused passage on the ship: “Jack Johnson wanted to get on board, captain he says ‘I ain’t hauling no coal’”.