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.

Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers no. 5: The Legend Of The U.S.S. Titanic

Number five in my Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers is The Legend Of The U.S.S. Titanic, a thirteen-minute “talking blues” recorded by New England folkie Jaime Brockett in 1969.

It’s an archetypal, freeform 1960s’ extravaganza, similar in style to Arlo Guthrie’s more familiar Alice’s Restaurant, though unlike Guthrie’s epic, Brockett’s piece was never made into a movie.

Loosely built around Leadbelly’s The Titanic, it includes a substantial walk-on part for heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Brockett also introduces an entirely new character into the saga, however, a first mate with a penchant for smoking hemp rope. Naturally he turns Captain Smith on to his poison of choice, with disastrous consequences…

I had hoped to include a link here to buy the track, but sadly it’s not available on iTunes, while on Amazon the CD that contains it costs over £100.

Amazon did at least tell me that p.354 of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness includes the line “Wanda said abruptly: ‘Can I have a drink, Jamie?’ Brockett poured her out a stiff brandy and soda.”

Top Ten Titanic toe-tappers no. 4: Blind Willie Johnson’s God Moves On The Water

Worthy of a place in any Top Ten of Titanic songs – though admittedly not everyone might consider it to be a “toe-tapper” – God Moves On The Water was recorded by the itinerant Texan street preacher Blind Willie Johnson in 1929.

To listen to it, click on the link below.

Despite the fact that he didn’t actually play the blues, blues aficionados have long regarded Johnson as a sort of honorary bluesman. That’s largely due to his astonishing virtuosity as a slide guitarist; on first acquaintance, on the other hand, some listeners find the gruff, leonine roar of his voice off-putting.

Johnson only ever recorded thirty sides, in three sessions between 1927 and 1930. Consisting of hymns, gospel tunes and moralistic ballads, they’re still guaranteed to send shivers down the spine. When Johnson was posthumously “rediscovered” during the 1960s’ blues revival, many of his new champions assumed that he’d written his own material; for his original  audience, however, most of his songs would have been familiar from church. Hence his repeated use of his guitar as a substitute for his voice – with the words already known, he often sang only half of each line, completing the phrase on the guitar instead.

Although this is the earliest known recording of God Moves On The Water, Johnson is thought to have acquired the song as sheet music from a street evangelist. The fact that he never sings the entire phrase “God moves on the water” suggests it was already well known.

The song is often described as expressing the belief that the sinking of the Titanic was divine retribution for its owner’s supposed boast that even God couldn’t sink the ship. However, although the lyrics include such details as “many gunshots were fired”, and they mention Captain E. J. Smith by name, they never actually say that God sank the Titanic as a judgement. The suggestion seems to be more that God moves in mysterious ways, among which “over water” is simply one of His many options.

After the Depression put an end to his career, Johnson returned to a life of poverty in Beaumont, Texas. He died in 1947 when he caught pneumonia after his shack burned down, and he was confined to bed with only damp newspapers for blankets.

All Johnson’s recordings, including his masterpiece, the extraordinary free-form Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, are collected on the twin-CD set The Complete Blind Willie Johnson.

To buy it in the US, click here; in the UK, click here.

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.