Songs Paying Tribute to the Titanic

Titanic Sheet Music

The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 may be the only disaster that actually had a soundtrack while it was happening. According to eyewitnesses violinist Wallace Hartley and other members of the Titanic's small orchestra played a combination of dance tunes, rags, marches and popular songs as the ship went down. To this day there is some confusion as to what the last song they played was. A survivor named Mrs. Vera Dick claimed she heard the band playing "Nearer My God To Thee" as her lifeboat sailed clear of the sinking vessel. Conflicting testimony was given by Harold Bride, the Titanic's radio operator who stayed on board as the ship actually sank. He said the band was playing "Songe d"Automne" just before the Titanic went down. One thing we do know, however, is that the band didn't play this version of "Nearer My God to Thee," which is the American setting of the hymn and not the the British one Hartley and his band mates would have been familiar with.

Perhaps because the legend of the Titanic disaster was so entwined with music from the beginning it has inspired an amazing number of compositions including the musicals The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Titanic; the avant-garde art piece The Sinking of the Titanic; and over a hundred songs in just about every style. Here is a round-up of some of the more memorable ones.

Ernest Gray, "Be British"

One of the first records about the disaster was Ernest Gray's 1912 release "Be British," a paean to the bravery of the men who upheld the "women and children first" ethos. This record is typical of the early Titanic songs. Ernest Gray-- a pseudonym of Robert Carr-- has a decidedly stolid delivery that suits the somber subject and his emotion aroused by the ship's sinking still resonates a century later.

Ernest Stoneman, "The Titanic"

In 1924 Ernest Stoneman recorded "The Titanic," a song composed by a now unknown musician around 1915 that is also known as "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down." This version of the song is a moral tale and includes a warning against hubris, a common theme in many of the compositions about the sinking. According to legend, the Titanic's builders claimed the ship was unsinkable thereby sealing her doom. For, as the songs puts it, "God with his mighty hand showed the world it could not stand." Stoneman's record became a huge success and was the first country song to sell more than a million copies.

Leadbelly, "The Titanic"

According to Leadbelly's "The Titanic," the African-American boxer Jack Johnson was denied passage on the Titanic because, as the captain says in the song, "I ain't hauling no coal." The Johnson urban legend, which started spreading in African-American communities soon after the sinking, contains more than a bit of schadenfreude and may account for Leadbelly's rather gleeful delivery. Leadbelly says that he learned this song in 1912, not long after the Titanic sank, and that it was the first song he learned to play on 12-string guitar.

Vernon Dalhart, "The Sinking of the Titanic"

Here's another version of "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down," this one by Vernon Dalhart, who never met a disaster we couldn't sing a song about. Perhaps best known for his rendition of the classic train disaster song "The Wreck of the Old 97," he also sang about murder, mine cave-ins, floods and, in a subject that may be unique in music history, a submarine sinking. Dalhart recorded at least four songs about the Titanic, but he also used about a dozen pseudonyms and since record collectors still haven't figured out all of them, there may be one or two more Titanic songs he recorded waiting to be discovered. Here's a Titanic song he recorded as Jeff Calhoun.

Blind Willie Johnson, "God Moves On The Water"

For my money, the most haunting Titanic song is by gospel guitarist Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson garbles the facts and the names but his spooky slide guitar and moaning delivery is full of dread of both drowning and damnation.

Richard "Rabbit" Brown, "Sinking of the Titanic"

Not much is known about Richard "Rabbit" Brown except that he was a New Orleans street singer whose entire recorded output consists of just five songs. His "Sinking of the Titanic" was recorded in 1927. It's unusual in that it actually mentions the Carpathia, the first ship to reach the Titanic's wreck site, and that it interpolates "Nearer My God To Thee" into the performance.

William and Versey Smith "When That Great Ship Went Down"

Nothing is known about William and Versey Smith and only one copy of their Paramount record of "When That Great Ship Went Down" is known to exist. This song has been recorded by many artists but I don't think any version has quite the drive and passion of this one.

Hi Henry Brown and Charley Jordon "Titanic Blues"

Hi Henry Brown is another blues singer about whom nothing is known. On his version of "Titanic Blues," which was recorded in New York in 1932, he is joined by guitarist Charley Jordan. It's a tribute to the public's enduring fascination with the Titanic tragedy that a record company thought they could a sell a song about it 20 years after the ship sank.

The Dixon Brothers "Down With The Old Canoe"

Like Vernon Dalhart, the Dixon Brothers had a penchant for songs about death, destruction and disaster. Their most famous song was "Wreck on the Highway," which was a huge hit for Roy Acuff, and is fairly represenitive of the tenor of their work. "Down With the Old Canoe" features some nice slide guitar work although the title is perhaps a little less respectful of the tragedy than other songs about the Titanic.

Frank Hutchison "The Last Scene of the Titanic"

Frank Hutchison's "The Last Scene of the Titanic" is talking blues about the tragedy that features some exemplary slide work. 

Los Straightjackets, "My Heart Will Go On"

Thanks to James Cameron's movie Titanic, the song most associated with the disaster is Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." If you you need to hear her version I presume you know how to find it but I would be remiss in my duties if I ignored it completely so here is an instrumental version by Los Straightjackets.