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Titanic 100 Year Anniversary: How 20th Century American Folk Singers Sold The Sinking Ship

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A hundred years ago, when the R.M.S. Titanic sank, people didn't have TV or radio to bring the news into their homes. If you wanted the day's top stories delivered with the immediacy of a human voice, you did what your ancestors had done for centuries: you sought out your local minstrel. Street-corner singer-songwriters and barroom bards abounded in town and country alike, and specialized in transforming the news into songs. They used the details of the story as they heard it (or read it in the papers), along with a common stock of folksong tricks and tropes, often liberally salting their creations with morals and opinions. The huge body of American folksongs about current affairs, from coal-mining disasters in Pennsylvania to Railroad accidents in Kentucky, and from the murders of Billy Lyons and Omie Wise to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield, is a reminder of the verbal and musical prowess of these largely forgotten songwriters. And if that weren't enough, prominent classical and popular songsmiths penned songs about current events for Tin Pan Alley publishers, many of which were passed on by word of mouth until they sounded just like folksongs of humbler origin.

This rich songwriting culture was fertile soil for the news about Titanic. Within days of the disaster, the songs began to sprout. The New Orleans educator and historian Archie Ebenezer Perkins, himself the son of former slaves, wrote a pioneering article about African-American spirituals for the Journal of American Folklore in 1922, in which he noted:

The Titanic sank on Sunday, April 14, 1912. The following Sunday, I saw on a train a blind preacher selling a ballad he had composed on the disaster. The title was "Didn't That Ship Go Down?" I remember one stanza: --

"God Almighty talked like a natural man,
Spoke so the people could understand."

Indeed, one of the most common themes of Titanic songs is the wrath of God. By advertising the ship as "virtually unsinkable" and adding a list of wealthy and prominent passengers, the White Star Line made many people feel the whole voyage reflected hubris, waste, and greed. In many minds, the iceberg was the hand of God, teaching a lesson to the rich and the mighty. "God Moves on the Water," sang Lightnin' Washington to the Library of Congress fieldworkers John and Alan Lomax in 1933, "the people got to run and pray."

Listen to "God Moves On The Water" below:

Performed by Lightnin' Washington and group. Recorded at Darrington State Prison, Sandy Point, TX, by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, December 1933. (discographic information at the Library Of Congress site)

On the other hand, some songs, like "The Sinking of the Titanic," which was performed by Wisconsin singers Clyde Spencer and Harry Fannin for collector Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1937, focused more on the sad fate of the victims, this one mentioning in particular the prominent German-American family that owned Macy's department store at the time: "Mrs. Isidora Straus, the wife and husband lost, they were to each other noble, true and brave; As they sung that Evening Hymn, she preferred to die with him, so they both went down beneath the angry waves."

Listen to "The Sinking of the Titanic" below:

Performed by Clyde Spencer and Harry Fannin. Recorded in Crandon, WI, by Sidney Robertson Cowell, July 1937. (discographic information at the Library Of Congress site)

The song itself had been published as early as 1913, in a book by the blind minstrel Richard D. Burnett, who was later part of the old-time country duo Burnett and Rutherford. Also in 1937, the Kentucky singer Arlie Baker sang Alan and Elizabeth Lomax another sympathetic song, whose most-repeated lines were "Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, it was sad when that great ship went down." That song, too, was already a classic, having been recorded commercially by Ernest V. Stoneman in 1924 (ed. note: the key phrase was also later immortalized by the great Woody Guthrie).

Listen to "The Titanic" below:

Performed by Arlie Baker. Recorded in Pine Mountain, KY, by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, Sept. 1937. (discographic information at the Library Of Congress site)

Most people who lived and worked on the water had a special connection with Titanic's survivors: they had come close to drowning, and knew people who had sunk without a trace. In 1935, Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle collected an unusual Titanic song from sponge-fishermen native to Andros Island in the Bahamas: "Titanic sinking, Titanic sinking, down on the ocean wide," they sang. "Remember the day, remember it well, their trouble it sure be like mine."

Listen to "Titanic Sinking" below:

Performed by Patrick Williams and unidentified group. Recorded in Nassau, Bahamas, by Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, July 1935. (discographic information at the Library Of Congress site)

There were several persistent legends about the Titanic expressed in African-American songs and poems. In one of these, boxing champion Jack Johnson is refused passage on the Titanic because of his race; when the ship sinks, Johnson does a victory dance. The most persistent Titanic legend among African-Americans featured a black boiler-room attendant who is the first to report that the ship is sinking. Most frequently known as "Shine," this character tells the captain that "the water's running in through the boiler-room door," only to be told to get back to work. In the most famous of these pieces, most often recited as a poem or "toast," Shine refuses to be locked below, and instead makes his escape by swimming all the way to Harlem, sometimes wrestling with a shark or a whale along the way.

Listen to "Shine And The Titanic" below:

Spoken by O.C. King. Recorded in Clarksdale, MS, by Alan Lomax, summer 1942. (discographic information at the Library Of Congress site)

The folklorist Bruce Jackson once stated that poems about Shine had been heard by "a very small number of white Americans and by several million blacks." This may be true, but the audience was probably limited to adults: most versions are downright raunchy, featuring wealthy white women promising Shine sex in exchange for a ride to safety. He rejects their advances, but not before they take off their clothes and describe what they're willing to do in embarrassingly graphic detail. Luckily, a relatively clean version was recorded by Alan Lomax from O.C. King in Clarksdale, MS, in 1942. (By the way, there was no real-life Shine: the entire crew seems to have been white, and the only black man on board was a Haitian traveling with his white wife and their two children; they escaped, but he did not.)

As with most things that become pop-culture icons, the Titanic refuses to mean just one thing. Titanic songs were as many and as varied as one can imagine; in the two years after the disaster, for example, about two hundred new songs on the theme were copyrighted, and that was (so to speak) the tip of the iceberg. By the 1930s, when fieldworkers started collecting such songs on discs, there had been enough time for singers to find the Titanic songs that best expressed their feelings about the story. As we pass the 100th anniversary of the disaster, let's think about the lessons of the Titanic, and choose our own songs with care.

All songs presented here courtesy the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Created by Congress in 1976, the Folklife Center aims to "preserve and present" American folklife through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit the AFC web site for more information, at http://www.loc.gov/folklife.