To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I thought it was appropriate to revist some classic shipwreck songs, from the Jack-Johnson-inspired “Fare Thee Well Titanic” to a vibrant toast about escaping the Titanic’s sinking, and a popular Stan Rogers’ song about the fictional wreck and rebuilding of the the Mary Ellen Carter.

One curious legend of the Titanic revolves around the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. The story goes that Jack tried to buy a ticket on the Titanic and was, luckily, refused. While having no grounding in reality, the story, perhaps because of the white racist fury with Johnson’s victory and uncompromising lifestyle, persists.

The tale of Johnson and the Titanic was the foundation for a song by another legendary African-American, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. His “Fare Thee Well Titanic” includes the lyrics:

Jack Johnson wanna get on board
Captain said I ain’t hauling no coal.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well…
When Jack Johnson heard that mighty shock,
Mighta seen the man do the Eagle rock.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.” (The Eagle Rock was a popular dance at the time).

It ends with, “Black man oughta jump for joy/Never lost a girl and either a boy. Fare thee Titanic, fare thee well.” Above is a long version with an introduction, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1948. Skip to 1:04 if you’d like to listen to the song without the intro.

Another folkloric representation of African-Americans and the Titanic is the “Shine and the Titanic” toast. A toast is a dynamic, narrative oral performance, often recounting a heroic event. “Shine and the Titanic” tells the story of Shine, an old Black stoker on the Titanic, who warns the captain of the ship’s impending disaster. Shine, in his heroism, also refuses money from millionaires, sexual favours from white women and manages to swim to shore. He is found drinking in a New York bar when news of the Titanic‘s demise arrives. His advice – “get your ass in the water and swim like me” – is well remembered. Read the lyrics here and a full analysis here. A warning: the language is graphic!

Other Nova Scotia Shipwrecks

Many scores of ships, not as famous as the Titanic, have gone down off the shores of Nova Scotia, and songs have been composed in response to them. Perhaps the most dramatic and probably the longest is “The Wreck of the Atlantic,” published in all 49 verses in Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia, 1928, the first collection of folk and related songs collected in English speaking Canada.

The Atlantic was a forerunner of the Titanic, being an A1 ship of the White Star Line, the same company that built the Titanic. The Atlantic went down off Prospect, Nova Scotia on March 31, 1873, having left Liverpool for New York ten days earlier. Roughly half the 1,000 or so passengers were rescued by the heroism of the local inhabitants, and the story is told eloquently in song in “The Wreck of the Atlantic.” Below is a video that visits the site of the cemetery where victims of the Atlantic are buried:

These songs were collected in the second decade of the 20th century and therefore were well within the living memory of the folks who sang them and many who listened to them. Most of the songs were a way of preserving local lore and did not travel well. Songs of sea battles, mutinies and the like tend to be more widely disseminated.

A more recent composition by Stan Rogers, an Ontario songwriter with roots in Nova Scotia, Shas become an icon of Canadian folk music. “The Mary Ellen Carter” is a fictional song about a ship that is wrecked and then salvaged by her crew after being written off by the owners. Its metaphor for persistence in the face of adversity is what makes it so popular. The denunciation of “smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go” resonates deeply. In “The Mary Ellen Carter,” the shipwreck tradition has been updated for contemporary usage. Stan Rogers died in a plane crash in 1983 but to my knowledge there is no song about that plane wreck. Times change.

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About Gary Cristall

Gary Cristall was the co-founder of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1978; from 1994 he spent six years at Canada Council. Since 2000 he has worked as an artist's manager and consultant and teacher of arts administration at Capilano University. He is researching and writing a history of folk music in English Canada. Visit Gary at his website and learn more about his book on the history of folk music in Canada. Photo credit: Brian Nation


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