Top Ten Titanic toe-tappers no. 3: Leadbelly’s The Titanic

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’”.

To download this track from Amazon, click here; to buy the 4-CD box set from which it comes, click here.

The astonishing true story of the “Nazi Titanic”

The compelling TV documentary Nazi Titanic: Revealed tells the amazing story of the 1943 Titanic movie, made in Nazi Germany. Not only was its director arrested and driven to suicide during the shoot, but the real-life ship that doubled as the Titanic met her own grisly end just two years later, claiming three times as many victims as the Titanic herself.

Commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the film calls the Titanic disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”. It centres on the struggle between “Sir Bruce Ismay” and John Jacob Astor – depicted as an Englishman – for control of the White Star Line, which is in financial trouble due to the cost of building “the first unsinkable ship in the world”. Boasting that the Titanic will capture the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing, Ismay promises Captain Smith $1000 for every hour he’s ahead of schedule when he reaches New York.

As well as the usual fictitious passengers, from decadent English gentry to young lovers in steerage, the film also features an invented crew member, the young German officer Petersen. Very much the conscience of the piece, Petersen repeatedly warns Ismay that the Titanic is sailing too fast, with too few lifeboats, into an ice zone. When the inevitable happens, both Ismay and Astor try and fail to buy their way onto a lifeboat, but Petersen helps Ismay to escape anyway, so he can be held accountable for his actions. Petersen too is rescued, after he swims out to a lifeboat carrying a little girl. The two men have a final confrontation at the subsequent inquiry, only for Ismay to be exonerated, and all blame placed on Captain Smith.

Incidental moments en route include a girl rejecting her parents to follow the man she loves; a debauched dance in the third-class dining room; and even, as in James Cameron’s Titanic, a jewel thief being rescued from the ship’s jail by the judicious use of an axe.

Click to buy from Amazon.com

The climactic scenes were filmed aboard the Cap Ancona, a liner requisitioned by the German navy. After director Herbert Selpin complained about the behaviour of the ship’s real-life German officers, his co-writer denounced him to the Gestapo. Within 24 hours Selpin had been interrogated by Goebbels himself, and found hanged in his cells.

The Cap Arcona also met with catastrophe; she was sunk by British fighter planes the day before the war ended. Five thousand concentration camp inmates, who were being shipped to an unknown destination, lost their lives.

The so-called “Nazi Titanic” will be shown at the NFT2, BFI Southbank, on April 18 at 6.20pm, and April 25 at 8.30pm.


Unravelling the Titanic’s carpets – with a hand from George Clooney (or two hands from his cousin)

My mother was born in the small town of Abbeyleix in Ireland, sixty miles southwest of Dublin, a few years after the Titanic disaster. She’s often told me that local people felt a strong connection with the Titanic, because the ship’s carpets had been made in Abbeyleix.

Set up in 1904 by landowner Viscount de Vesci, Abbeyleix’s long-defunct carpet factory has recently hit the headlines because one of its earliest employees, Sarah Clooney, turns out to have been an ancestor – well, a distant cousin – of George Clooney.

Four hand-tufted rugs from the factory were aboard the Titanic when she sank, and two of the hands that tufted them may well have belonged to Sarah Clooney.

This photo shows the actual rugs being woven, on the loom in Abbeyleix. An exhibition in the town’s Heritage Centre tells the entire story.

I should mention, though, that the Titanic held an awful lot of other carpets as well. The main manufacturer was James Templeton & Co of Glasgow, whose rather extraordinary factory, completed in 1892 and modelled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, remains a Bridgeton landmark.

Templeton amalgamated with Stoddard Carpets in 1980. As Stoddard International, the firm made the replica carpets that were used in James Cameron’s Titanic. The company has since gone into liquidation, but its original Titanic designs are archived at Glasgow University.

Hold The Front Page! Thrilling Details of Titanic Rescue!

Has there ever been a front page to match this one?

This is the New-York Tribune from April 19, 1912.  In the four days since the Titanic hit the iceberg, the world has had no news of the tragedy beyond a piecemeal list of the victims.

Now the rescue ship Carpathia has finally reached New York,  carrying the only survivors of the tragedy, and at last the newspapers have the “THRILLING DETAILS” to get their teeth into.

Or do they?  A quick look at the headlines below, all clipped from this same page, reveals that while the stories are certainly thrilling, it’s quite possible that none of them is actually true.


The stories here include such persistent myths as that Captain Smith shot himself, that White Star Line president J. Bruce Ismay escaped with a hand-picked crew,  and that an officer shot panicking “Italians”.

A century later, we still don’t know whether any of these things really happened.

Top Ten Titanic toe-tappers no. 2: Down with the Old Canoe

Here’s the second selection from my top ten Titanic songs Down WIth The Old Canoe, recorded by the Dixon Brothers in 1938. Listen to it by clicking on the image below.

While it’s often said that the Titanic disaster was seen as divine retribution for the arrogance of building an “unsinkable” ship, actual expressions of that belief are surprisingly hard to find.  This song, though, a bluegrass duet by two brothers from South Carolina, states it loud and clear.

The Dixon Brothers start by mentioning that “It was 25 years ago”, but they probably adapted the song from a previous version. They then tell their terrible tale, that “Many passengers and her crew went down with that old canoe / They all went down to never rise no more”.

After explaining that “this great ship was built by man, that is why she could not stand”, they move on to use the disaster as an explicit warning to their listeners: “Your Titanic sails today”, and “if you go on in your sin”, you too will “go down with that old canoe”.

You can buy it on the wonderful box set People Take Warning, a compendium of musical mayhem and murder from the early twentieth century. The three separate CDs are categorized as Man vs Machine, which encompasses the Titanic, some tangled and tormented trains, and other transport-related tragedies; Man vs Nature, which is largely weather-related but also covers fires and explosions; and Man vs Man, a catalogue of horrible homicides and heart-breaking homilies.

Author Steven Biel used the title Down With The Old Canoe for his groundbreaking and hugely enjoyable cultural history of the Titanic disaster, a new edition of which is due to appear soon.

Naming the Titanic – or now playing: James Cameron’s Cedric

This photo shows the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, under construction at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyards in 1910.

The White Star Line first announced the names of the two ships on 22 April 1908. The impetus for naming the Olympic seems obvious – it was just five days until the opening ceremony of the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

In fact, the name officially referred to the Greek gods of Mount Olympus – the pantheon of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and so on. In Greek myth, those gods came to power by subduing the mighty immortal Titans, who had ruled in the preceding Golden Age. Hence the name Titanic.

The Olympic and the Titanic also had a younger sister, work on which had barely started when the Titanic went down. Despite subsequent denials, historians generally agree that this third ship was originally destined to be called the Gigantic – in Greek mythology, the Giants, or Gigantes, were yet another race of gods, who staged a revolt against the Olympic gods in the hope of reinstating the Titans.

The name Gigantic was quietly dropped after the disaster. In 1914, with jingoism seeming a better bet than hubris, the third ship was launched as the Britannic.

Every White Star ship, incidentally, was given a name ending in –ic, whereas the ships of their big rivals Cunard ended in –ia; thus Mauretania, Lusitania and so on. Previous White Star vessels had included the Traffic, the Magnetic, and the Arabic.

When RMS Cedric was launched in 1903, she was, like the later Titanic, the largest ship in the world.

You have to wonder whether the sinking of the Titanic would be quite so well remembered had disaster befallen the Cedric instead. Does James Cameron’s Cedric in 3D have quite the same ring?

The Titanic’s (very) big sister, filmed in 1910

This remarkable footage, from the BFI archive channel on YouTube, shows the construction of the Titanic’s “older sister”, the Olympic, in 1910.

The Olympic and the Titanic were built side by side in the same enormous gantry at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyards, surmounted by 214-foot cranes. Fifteen thousand men worked on the two ships; up to eight of them are thought to have lost their lives.

For the initial overhead sequence here, the camera must have been somewhere near the top.  Sadly, when it moved down to ground level, the operator resisted panning far enough over to reveal the Titanic, which must have been already taking shape.

The Olympic was eventually launched later that year, on October 20, and set off on the first leg of her maiden voyage on May 31, 1911, the same day that the Titanic was launched. Although the Titanic was subsequently modified to provide extra passenger comforts, the two ships were all but identical.

Historians seeking to debunk the myth that the Titanic was considered “unsinkable” thus point to the fact that there’s no record of anyone making similar claims about the Olympic.

Many thanks to Simon McCallum at the BFI for inviting me to post the clip on Blogtanic.