According to Pablo Picasso, art is “a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand”.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan discussed his new song about the sinking of the Titanic, “Tempest”. He implied that his song wasn’t too concerned about the historical facts of the disaster. Instead, he wanted to use the tale to reveal deeper truths. Pre-empting possible objections to his version of events, he said:

People are going to say, ‘Well, it’s not very truthful.’ But a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.

When Dylan last referenced the Titanic (in “Desolation Row”), he focused on what could have happened, rather than what actually happened: “The Titanic sails at dawn.” The Titanic never set sail at dawn from any of its ports.

Dylan has at times been accused of being less than truthful in his songs. Songs about Hattie Carroll, George Jackson, Joey Gallo, and Rubin Carter have all come in for criticism in this regard. In the case of Hattie Carroll, Dylan read about her murder in a newspaper. “Nothing has changed,” he famously explained, “except the words.”

Danger can lurk in the calmest water (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

The fate of the Titanic has been commemorated many times in song since her sinking 100 years ago. In these songs, truth and myth become hopelessly entangled in the tragic narrative.

Some early songs focused on anecdotal tales of heroism among the passengers as the ship sank. Many praised the men for staying on board so that the women and children could get on the lifeboats. Captain Smith was often singled out. Hi Henry Brown’s “Titanic Blues” tells us:

Children cryin’ “Mama, mama what shall we do?”
Children cryin’ “Mama, mama what shall we do?”
Captain Smith says, “Children, I’ll take care of you”.

Millionaire John Jacob Astor was also celebrated for his apparent self-sacrifice. For example, in “The Titanic Is Doomed and Sinking”, we’re told:

There was John Jacob Astor,
What a brave man was he
When he tried to save all female sex,
The young and all, great and small,
Then got drowned in the sea.

The poignant image of the string quintet playing until the ship’s final minutes recurs in many songs. Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” is a broadside that creates the impression of being factual by including many specific details about the tragedy:

It was on the 10th of April on a sunny afternoon,
The Titanic left Southampton, each one as happy as a bride and groom.
No one thought of danger or what their fate may be
Until a gruesome iceberg caused 1500 to perish in the sea.

His song also includes the string quintet:

The music played as they went down on that dark blue sea,
And you could hear the sound of that familiar hymn, singing “Nearer My God to Thee”.

Brown then seamlessly segues into a rendition of the hymn, altering the lyrics to the occasion:

Though like a wanderer
As the sun goes down,
Darkness be over me.
Just then the Titanic went down

(Did the quintet really play “Nearer My God to Thee”? Some survivors said it was the last song played, and others said it wasn’t. A surviving wireless operator, Harold Bride, said the last song was “Autumn”. None of the quintet survived the sinking, but “Nearer My God to Thee” was believed to be the quintet leader’s favourite hymn. We’ll never know for sure. If anyone wanted to query the factual accuracy of Brown’s version, he would possibly refer them to his “James Alley Blues”: “You know I’ll tell you all the truth, won’t you take my word from me.”)

For some singers, however, the Titanic was a symbol of failure, a promise of opulent luxury that ended up rusting on the floor of the Atlantic. Ma Rainey’s 1925 “Titanic Man Blues” is the first blues song to refer to the ship. Rainey compares her useless lover to the Titanic:

Rig you up like a ship at sea,
But you sunk an’ made a fool of me,
It’s the last time, Titanic, fare thee well.

Many years later, Fingers Flaherty would use the Titanic to allude to his own doomed relationship:

I had my cheap thrill, but now I’m paying the price,
Those cheap thrills were hot, but I’ve gotta pay that price,
She took the ship of love and buried it underneath the ice.

The “unsinkable” Titanic also came to be seen as a symbol of people’s avarice and hubris, in particular white man’s avarice and hubris. It was the most luxurious liner ever built, but class distinctions were strictly enforced on board, with the different classes of accommodation. And there were believed to be no African Americans among the passengers or the crew. (There was one black passenger, a Haitian-born engineer called Joseph Laroche, who travelled second class.)

It was rumoured that Jack Johnson, African American heavyweight boxing champion, tried to buy a ticket for the Titanic, but was refused. Leadbelly’s “Fare Thee Well, Titanic” recounts Johnson’s attempts to board the ship:

Jack Johnson wanted to get on board,
Captain Smith hollered, “I ain’t haulin’ no coal.”

Although the Leadbelly song praises the bravery of the men for “savin’ the women”, Jack Johnson is shown to feel no sadness when he sees the ship founder. Indeed, he dances with joy:

Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock,
Mighta seen the black rascal doin’ the Eagle Rock.

Because African Americans were excluded from the ship, none died in the tragedy. This becomes cause for celebration in this song:

Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.

String Beans, an African American vaudeville star, claimed to have been on the Titanic. When performing his “Titanic Blues”, his dance moves mimicked the sinking of the ship:

I was on that great Titanic
The night that she went down.
Ev’ybody wondered
Why I didn’t drown –
I had them Elgin movements in my hips.

Another myth that grew up around the Titanic centres of the character of Shine, an African American boiler room worker on the ship. Shine tries to warn Captain Smith that the ship is about to sink, but Smith orders him back to the boilers to shovel on more coal. (It’s interesting how in the African American narrative Captain Smith, the figure of white authority, is often cast as the villain.)

Shine disobeys the orders and jumps overboard before the ship hits the iceberg. In toasts (narrative poems) celebrating Shine’s prowess, he swims past sharks to safety while trapped passengers on the stricken ship beg him to take them with him:

So Shine jumped overboard and begin to swim,
And all the people were standin’ on deck watchin’ him.
Captain’s daughter jumped on the deck with her dress above her head
and her teddies below her knees.
and said, “Shine, Shine”, say, “won’t you save poor me?”

The narrative in the Titanic songs often depends on the themes that the singer wants to convey: bravery, self-sacrifice, faith, pride, greed, racism, justice, and so on. Dylan has said that his Titanic song was inspired in part by the Carter Family’s “The Titanic” and by James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. How historically accurate the song will be remains to be seen. He once declared, in “Outlaw Blues”: “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth.” Or at least a form of the truth…

How important is it that song lyrics are historically accurate? Is it acceptable to be cavalier about specific details when trying to illustrate a more universal truth? Can a small lie reveal a bigger truth?

2 thoughts on “The Titanic Sails at Dawn

  1. Dylan also included a sly reference to it in the 1981 outtake “Caribbean Wind” with the line, “street band playin’ “Nearer My God to Thee;” although it is a street band and not a string quartet at sea, the song is a symbol for imminent apocalypse.

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