This essay is taken from Mike
www.mikeballantyne.ca . Mike has kindly
agreed for me to publish it on the Earlyblues website. Thanks Mike.
the 10th 1912 the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic sailed on her
maiden voyage from Southampton. Shortly before midnight on the 14th of April she
struck an iceberg and, a little over two and a half hours later, she sank with
the loss of 1,517 passengers and crew. Considering the enormity of the disaster
it is not surprising that a great number of songs were either written about the
tragedy or referred to it in one form or another. The number of blues, however,
appears to be relatively small, although the number recorded probably does not
properly reflect either of the number of blues that were composed or the order
in which they were written, nor, for that matter, when they were written.†
Ma Rainey’s Titanic
Man Blues [see
Mike Ballantyne's transcription] recorded in New York in December
1925, is the first documented blues that refers in any way to the sinking
although, in true blues fashion (and Ma Rainey style), the song refers not to
the actual disaster but to her wastrel companion who is compared to the
Rig you up
like a ship at sea,
But you sunk an’ made a fool of me.‡
Liston’s Titanic Blues, recorded in Chicago on the 29th of May
the following year, was the next blues recorded. It was structured in much the
same way as Ma Rainey’s Titanic Man Blues and it used a small part of
that song’s chorus but it was more a ballad about the actual sinking.
‘Rabbit’ Brown’s Sinking of the Titanic [DB–1, p. 40-41], recorded in New
Orleans on March the 11th 1927, is again a ballad of the disaster —
essentially a broadside and, although it is included in blues discographies, it
has little else to associate it with the blues. In fact, only Brown’s James
Alley Blues is of any real consequence in this respect, all the rest of his
recorded sides appear to be commercial, popular songs and the like.
excellent song, [Wasn’t It Sad] When That Great Ship Went Down, recorded
by the husband and wife duo William & Versey Smith in August of the same year
[DB–1, p. 408], is a later version of an original broadsheet written about the
time of the sinking [Laws, D 24], of the same title, but also known as both
The Titanic, and Husbands & Wives, and even as a combination of these
two titles. The Smith’s version is a blues adaptation sung with a wonderfully
wild blues spirit.
December, 1929 Blind Willie Johnson recorded his great, gospel blues God
Moves on the Water and, four years later, a variant of the song was
collected by the Lomax’s, from the singing of “Lightning” Washington, at the
Darrington State Farm (penitentiary), in Sandy Point, Texas.
‘Hi’ Henry Brown’s Titanic Blues (1932) is a
legitimate blues and, like Leadbelly’s The Titanic [LS, p.26] tells the
tale again from the disaster point of view. Brown’s Titanic has another
important attachment to blues history. Brown is apparently accompanied on the
recording by Charlie Jordan (aka “Uncle Skipper”), who is cited elsewhere on
Mike Ballantyne's website in connection with his own song
Keep It Clean.
The words of Brown’s Titanic can be found in Bob Macleod’s transcriptions
[Y2, p. 96].
Leadbelly’s The Titanic was probably composed by him in the ’Thirties but
is adapted from Virginia Liston’s Titanic Blues and was not recorded by
him until his Library of Congress, Folkways, Last Sessions recordings of
Rainey’s Titanic Man Blues can be found in the repertoire of Traditional
jazz bands, usually without 'Man' of the title, presumably so that the
sexes can be changed round to accommodate male singer’s identity. Leadbelly’s
Titanic remains a staple of acoustic blues singers, and When That Great
Ship Went Down, outside its brief adoption into the blues repertoire, has
remained in the white, folk music tradition since being recorded by Woody
Guthrie and, subsequently, being taken up by Pete Seeger in particular.
Mike Ballantyne 2010 __________________________________________________________________________
† This essay does not include the white, Country Music songs about
the Titanic disaster.
For some early songs in this genre, the songs The Titanic, recorded by
Earnest Stoneman in 1924 & 1925, The Last Scene of the Titanic, recorded
by Frank Hutchison in 1927, and Down With the Old Canoe, recorded by
Howard and Dorsey Dixon in 1938, are recommended. For more details see Tony
Russell’s discography of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press,
‡ These two lines, the first couplet on the second verse, are
invariably transcribed incorrectly, even though the whole point of the song’s
title relies upon them.
ASCH Moses and Alan LOMAX. (1962) The Leadbelly Songbook [LS]. Oak
Publications, New York
DIXON, Robert M.W., John GODRICH & Howard RYE. (1997) Blues & Gospel Records
1890-1943. The Clarendon Press, Oxford (Fourth Edition).
LAWS, G. Malcolm Jr. (1964) Native American Balladry. American Folklore
LIEB, Sandra R. (1981) Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey.
University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst
Macleod, R. R. (1994) Document Blues – 1 [DB1]. Pat Publications,
Macleod, R. R. (1992) Yazoo 21 – 83 [Y2]. Pat Publications, Edinburgh
RUSSELL, Tony. (2004) Country Music Records A Discography, 1921-1942.
Oxford University Press, Oxford
SAPOZNIK, Henry “Hank”. (2010) People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster
Songs, 1913-1938 [3-CD set] Tompkins Square TSO 2509
Mike is a singer
who formerly sang folksongs, folk-blues and blues, together with some country
and jazz. Now, with more than forty years singing experience behind him, and to
the exclusion of all his previous repertoire, he is devoting himself exclusively
to early blues and, for the most part, to their earliest documented lyrics as
they were sung and recorded in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These blues, for the most
part, form a fun and varied repertoire of blues, hokum, ragtime and jug band
songs, rather different from stereotypical, often slow and rather maudlin
For further details see Mike's
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