Music to Mark 100th Anniversary of Titanic's Sinking

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<!-- missing image --> <!-- missing image -->h, and year mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.  Actually today, April 15th was the exact day the great ship went down.  Readers are asked to forgive the length of this post, but the Titanic brings up so many things.

Here are three pieces of music that relate to it (certainly there must be others too).  The first is a 1929 blues song by Blind Willie Johnson, called “God Moves on the Water”.    Johnson was a blues musician from Texas who recorded this famous song in New Orleans.  Johnson wasn’t born blind:  His mother, enraged that her husband was cheating on her, threw a handful of lye into the face of the young boy.

The song “God Moves on the Water” was inspired by the statement by a White Star Line employee upon the launch of the Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912, that “even God Himself Couldn’t Sink the Titanic”.    Inspired by the temerity of this statement, Johnson penned the famous song.  The bluesman–who also had his song “Dark Was the NIght, Cold Was the Ground” go up on the Voyager Spacecraft time capsule for eternity–also may have known that the great black boxer Jack Johnson wanted to book passage in 1st class but was turned away;  the ship’s captain, Edward Smith was reported to have said that the Titanic didn’t haul any coal.   Leadbelly later (1948)  wrote a song about that as well.

Lyrics to “God Moves on the Water” by Blind Willie Johnson

Ah, Lord, ah, Lord
Year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day
Great Titanic struck an iceberg, people had to run and pray
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
The guards who had been a-watching, asleep ’cause they were tired
When they heard the great excitement, then a gunshot was fired
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
Captain Smith gave orders, women and children first
Many of the lifeboats piled right up, many were liable to crush
God moves on, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
So many had to leave their happy home, all that they possess
Lord Jesus, will you hear us now, help us in our distress
God moves, God moves, God moves, ah, people had to run and pray
Women had to leave their loving ones, see ’bout their safety
When they heard the liner was doomed, hearts did almost break
God moves, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
A.G. Smith, mighty man, built a boat that he couldn’t understand
Named it a name of God in a tin, without a “c”, Lord, he pulled it in
God moves, ah, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
(spoken: Well) Ahh, ah, Lord

 And now, Leadbelly’s Song “The Titanic”

The Titanic

Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly")
It was a midnight on the sea,
The band was playing, "Nearer my God to Thee,"
Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well!
Titanic when it got its load,
Captain, he hollered "all aboard!"
Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well!
Titanic was comin' 'round the curve,
when it run into that great big iceberg,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
Titanic was sinkin' down,
Had them lifeboats around,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
Had them lifeboats around
Savin' the women and children lettin' the men go down,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
Jack Johnson want to get on board,
Captain he says, "I ain't haulin' no coal!"
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!

Jack Johnson, the greatest black boxer until Joe Louis, wasn’t the only would-be passenger to fight racism aboard the great vessel either.    Abbas Effendi, known as the “Persian Prophet”, was the son of the founder of the Bahá’í faith, which started 150 years ago and today is among the world’s fastest growing religions.  Effendi’s American followers sent him funds so that he could come to America on the Titanic and go on an American speaking tour.  A recent Huffington Post story tells of how Effendi, concerned that the upper-crust passengers and crew would not accept a Persian man wearing a turban and declined the offer, sailing instead on the more modest SS Cedric.  The press in both Europe and America considered him (and his founding father)  a philosopher, a peace apostle;  some even called him the return of Christ.  He, like his ffather, formulated the basic tenets of the Bahá’í faith, which today has over 150,000 adherents in the U.S. and many more throughout the world  (though followers are persecuted in Iran, where it was born).

So Effendi, like the famous boxer, was also shunned but was fortunate to not be on board for the maiden voyage .

Another more recent musical work is English composer Gavin Bryar’s The Sinking of the Titanic, which was issued on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 and was only once reissued on cd.  On it, much of the music sounds blurred as if emerging from underwater.  Fragments of the spiritual “Nearer Thy God to Thee” waft through the composition;  the ship orchestra is said to have stopped playing light waltzes, foxtrots, and the latest rags as the ship was going down, and went outside to the deck and played this old hymn.  Bryar’s work also features voices of Titanic survivors who were still alive in the mid-70s, when the album was recorded.  Another recording of the work came out in the 1990’s, but I’ve always preferred the almost otherworldly sound of the earlier album.

The Titanic brought so many different worlds together:  arrogance, racism, music:  no wonder that we continue to be fascinated by this tragedy that happened one hundred years ago.