Titanic (I), The ("It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down") [Laws D24] (Titanic #1)
DESCRIPTION: (Though the builders called her unsinkable), "On Monday morning... the great Titanic began to reel and rock." Rich and poor will not mix, so the poor on the lower decks drown first. The band plays "Nearer My God to Thee" and sixteen hundred people die
EARLIEST DATE: 1924 (recording, Ernest V. Stoneman)
KEYWORDS: sea wreck family disaster death
April 14/15, 1912 - Shortly before midnight, ship's time, the Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins to sink. Only 711 survivors are found of 2224 people believed to have been aboard.
FOUND IN: US(Ap,SE,So)
REFERENCES (14 citations):
Laws D24, "The Titanic I"
Randolph 693, "The Great Titanic" ("B" fragment only; Randolph's "A" text is "The Titanic (IV)" ("Lost on the Great Titanic") (Titanic #4))
BrownII 287, "The Titanic" (5 texts plus an excerpt and mention of 2 more. The Laws data for this book is badly confused, but it appears the "C" and "D" texts are this song, and apparently the "E" fragment also; "A" and "B" are broadsides Laws does not classify (The first clearly based on "The Golden Vanity"; the second seems to be an adaption of this song to "There Will Be a Hot Time"), and "H" is "God Moves on the Water")
BrownSchinhanIV 287, "The TItanic" (4 exceprts, 4 tunes, with "B" being presumably the same as Brown's "B" broadsiide, ""D" and "E" being "Titanic (I) 'It Was Sad When THat Great Ship Went Down'," and "H" being "God Moves on the Water" ("Titanic (III)")
MHenry-Appalachians, pp. 88-89, "The Great Titanic" (1 text)
Friedman, p. 323, "The Titanic" (1 text+2 fragments)
Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 60 "When That Great Ship Went Down" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-SoFolklr, p. 723, "The Ship Titanic" (1 text, 1 tune)
Courlander-NFM, p. 77, "(The Titanic)" (1 text)
Pankake-PHCFSB, pp. 280-281, "The Titanic" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NAS, pp. 184-185, "The Coast of Peru" (1 text)
Silber-FSWB, p. 55, "The Titanic" (1 text)
DT 616, TITANIC5*
ADDITIONAL: Harold Courlander, _A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore_, Crown Publishers, 1976, pp. 403-404, "Wasn't IT Sad When That Great Ship Went Down" (1 text)
Pink Anderson, "The Titanic" (on PinkAnd1, Class AfrAm)
Vernon Dalhart, "The Great Titanic" (Champion 15121, 1926) (Radiex 4131=Grey Gull 4131 [as Jeff Calhoun], 1927)
George Reneau, "The Sinking of the Titanic" (Vocalion 5077, 1926)
Ernest V. Stoneman, "The Titanic" (OKeh 40288, 1925; rec. 1924); "Sinking of the Titanic" (Edison 51823, 1926) (CYL: Edison [BA] 5200, 1926); "Sinking of the Titanic" (on Stonemans02)
William & Versey Smith, "When That Great Ship Went Down" (Paramount 12505B, 1927; on AAFM1)
cf. all the other Titanic songs (plot)
cf. "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" (tune)
NOTES: Despite this song (and other folklore), the band on the Titanic did NOT play "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship sank. Instead, they played light music to prevent panic.
The reference to rich and poor not mixing is accurate enough, though hardly unique to the Titanic. As with most liners of the time, the Titanic carried three classes of passengers: First class, second class, and steerage, for the poorest people (mostly emigrants, and mostly jammed in their cabins as tight as sardines)
Steerage passengers, of course, were stuck far down in the ship. Ballad, p. 168, has a side view of the ship's plans, showing that many of the steerage passengers were four floors below the main deck, near the waterline, whereas the first class passengers were mostly above the main deck, with easy access to the lifeboats.
It showed in the casualties. According to Paine, 60% of the first class passengers survived (Ballard, p. 149, reports that every child in first class, save one, survived, and she died only because she wouldn't leave her mother, who wouldn't leave her husband). 42% of second class passengers survived, but only 25% of steerage (comparable to the 24% of the crew who survived).
Some versions of this, including Friedman's, have a reference to Paul's promise that "not a man should drown"; this is a reference to Acts 27:34, when Paul is on his way to Rome and the ship in which he is being held prisoner is driven by a storm. Friedman wonders if there might not be an earlier song about Paul's wreck which gave rise to a Titanic text. It seems likely enough, and the verse about Paul is a likely survival, since it is almost irrelevant in its current place in the text.
In fact, we might even make a guess as to the source of the verse. Most recordings of this song use an approximation of Ernest Stoneman's tune. But Wade Mainer eventually recorded a version (not cited here because I don't know the album number) which uses a tune effectively identical to the one he uses for "Home in the Rock." So that could be a source for scripture references.
To tell this from the other Titanic songs, consider the chorus:
It was sad when that great ship went down,
It was sad when that great ship went down.
There were husbands and wives,
Little children lost their lives,
It was sad when that great ship went down.
For an extensive history of the Titanic, with detailed examination of the truth (or lack thereof) of quotes in the Titanic songs, see the notes to "The Titanic (XV)" ("On the tenth day of April 1912") (Titanic #15)
In an interesting footnote, the Ernest Stoneman version of this almost didn't get released, according to Mazor, pp. 58-59. Stoneman had recorded two songs for OKeh, and Ralph Peer and Co. decided that the two cuts were too fast for popular release. They told Stoneman, and he offered to come to the studio at his own expense and re-record them, as long as he got to record two more sides. Peer and Stoneman made the agreement, and "The Titanic" was one of the songs released as a result. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Ballard: Dr. Robert D. Ballard, The Discovery of the Titanic, Warner, 1987
- Mazor: Barry Mazor, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, Chicago Review Press, 2015
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
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