Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers no. 6: The Titanic, or, It was sad (it was sad)

Number six in my Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers is probably the best known of them all. It’s that staple of a thousand scout camps, the song that tells how “It was sad when that great ship went down”.

Click on the audio player above to hear Ernest V. Stoneman perform it in 1924, as released under the simple title The Titanic. Although this was the first known recording of the song, an early version of the lyrics is said to have been circulating as sheet music within a week of the disaster.

Stoneman, a bluegrass musician from Virginia who accompanied himself on autoharp and harmonica, is reported to have sold over a million copies. It has to be conceded that, like many of those who have sung these words over the past century – or like many of the scouts, at any rate – he doesn’t actually sound all that sad about the tragedy.

Click on the second audio player above, and you’ll hear a much wilder blues version, cut three years later in 1927, by William and Versey Smith, under the more familiar title of When That Great Ship Went Down. A husband and wife duo, they’re thought to have come from Texas. William was a gospel singer in a similar vein to Blind Willie Johnson; Versey accompanies him on the washboard, while also banging various other household implements she seems to have had to hand.

The Ernest Stoneman recording comes from the excellent compilation People Take Warning, available on Amazon and iTunes.

The William and Versey Smith track is from the more diverse but equally interesting box set Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice, also available on Amazon and iTunes.

To listen to the previous selections in my Titanic Top Ten, click here.

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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.