by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April, 2012)

Lyle Lofgren once showed me a quip about the sinking of the Titanic, "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg."1

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the day the Titanic went metaphoric. Late on the night of April 14, 1912, she hit the iceberg; she sank early on the morning of April 15. There were seven hundred and eleven survivors; we don't know exactly how many died, but it was almost certainly between 1490 and 1517. Call it fifteen hundred in round numbers.

Those survivors are all gone now. The songs, though, remain. The Titanic was the last great event of English-language folk song -- I've cataloged no fewer than fourteen traditional songs on the topic. The Battle of Waterloo and Robin Hood have more songs about them, but nothing since even comes close. And many of these songs have strong old-time roots. I thought, to celebrate the centenary, that I would provide three Titanic songs. To save space, I won't give you the music. I've added a few explanatory notes.

1.  [I was quoting an Onion headline from Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source. (Three Rivers Press, 1999) -- Lyle]

The Titanic (Laws D24) (as sung by Ernest V. Stoneman)

1. It was on a Monday morning Just about one o'clock
That the great Titanic
Began to reel and rock.
Then the people began to cry,
Saying, "Lord, I'm a-going to die."
It was sad when that great ship went down.

It was sad when that great ship went down,
Husbands and wives,
Little children lost their lives,
It was sad when that great ship went down.

2. When they were building the Titanic,
They said what they could do,
They were going to build a ship
That the water could not go through,
But God, with a mighty hand,
Showed to the world it could not stand,
It was sad (etc.)

3. When they left Eng-a-land
They were making for the shore,
The rich they declared
They would not ride with the poor.2
So they sent the poor below,
They was the first that had to go.
It was sad (etc.)

4. When the people on the ship
Were a long way from home,
With friends all around them,
Didn't know their time had come,
But death came riding by,
Sixteen hundred had to die,
It was sad (etc.)

2.  It is true that the first class and third class (steerage) passengers could not mix -- they were locked apart from each other. But this was due to American quarantine laws; the third class passengers were mostly immigrants, and the Americans didn't want them wandering around too much before they could be examined and found to be healthy. The first class passengers naturally were placed on the upper decks, so they could see out and walk around in good weather, so they found it much easier to reach the lifeboats. Almost all first class women and children lived, and some of the men; very few from third class, and almost no men, survived.

God Moves on the Water (Laws dI27) (As sung by Bessie Jones)

1. God move... out on the water,
April the fourteenth day,
Children, God move... out on the water
Everybody have to run and pray.

2. The Titanic it left Southhampton,3
With all their sporty gain,
But when they struck that iceberg,
I know their mind was changed.

3. The mothers had told their daughters,
Says, "On the pleasure trip you may go."
But when they struck that iceberg,
They haven't been seen any more.

4. One man, John Jacob Ashton,4
He was a man with pluck and brain,
While this great ship was sinking.
All the womens he tried to save.

Captain Edward J. Smith
Captain Smith

5. His kissed his wife the last time
When the boiler did explode5
He put her in that lifeboat,
He said, "I won't see you any more."

6. He was warned by a freight boat,
But Captain Smith6 did not take heed,
Instead of giving the warning,
He just ran with greater speed.

7. The fourteenth day of April,
Was in nineteen hundred and twelve,
The ship got wrecked by an iceberg,
It went down forever to dwell.

8. The story of that shipwreck
Is almost too sad to tell
One thousand and six hundred
Went down, forever to dwell.

3.  Southampton was the Titanic's home port; it set out from there, stopped at Queenstown, and then started its voyage across the North Atlantic.

4.  The versions of this song vary in the name they use. It should be "John Jacob Astor" (1864-1912), who was probably the richest man aboard. He was on a pleasure trip with his trophy wife. When the crew manned the lifeboats, he asked to go with her. He was denied a place in the boat (even though spaces were available, and even though his wife was visibly pregnant four months after their marriage). There are no reports by survivors of Astor trying to help any other passengers. And his wife remarried in 1918 despite the fact that, under the prenuptial agreement, she had to give back her inheritance as a result.

5.  The state of the Titanic's wreckage shows that there was no boiler explosion. But there probably was a lot of steam vented, and some passengers seem to have taken this for an explosion.

6.  Edward J. Smith was the commodore of the White Star line and was making one run on the Titanic before retiring. He did indeed receive ice warnings, but he seems to have ignored them.

The Titanic (as sung by Darby & Tarleton)

1. When the moon rose in its glory,
And it dipped into the golden west,
It told a sad new story,
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest.

2. Captain Smith surely must have been a-drinking,7
Not knowing that he was going wrong.
He tried to race a record,8
And let the Titanic go down.

3. Well, the porter had retired and was sleeping,
He was dreaming of some sad dream,
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
ay out on the bottom of the sea.

4. Captain Smith, he says to the rich man,
"Oh, try to come to life,
Try and save your baby,
Also your little loving wife."

5. Mrs. Smith heard her husband was a-drowning:
Way out on the deep blue sea,
She cried out, "Oh Lord, have mercy,
Oh Lord, send him back to me."

6. When the sad news reached the city
That that Titanic had gone down,
Many widows and poor little orphans
Was walking all around the town.9

7.  The White Star Line absolutely forbade drinking by its officers while they served at sea. There is no evidence that Captain Smith violated this rule. However, he had never, in a long career at sea, ever faced a significant emergency. He seems to have been unable to handle it.

8.  The Titanic had no chance of making a record on its Atlantic crossing. It was not designed to be as fast as the Cunard ships Lusitania and Mauretania; it was designed to be very comfortable. Captain Smith did not push the ship to its capacity on its maiden voyage. He may, however, have tried to exceed the speed that Titanic's sister ship Olympic had made on her first voyage the year before.

9.  Most of the Titanic's crew -- on the order of 80% -- was recruited in Southampton, and it is estimated that almost half a percent of the population of the town died on the Titanic. Hundreds of families suffered a loss; one school is said to have had 125 students who lost a relative.

Titanic Sketch

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