Craven Lovelace

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November 20, 2012
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CRAVEN: When the great ship went down

With the release of his 35th studio album, "Tempest," critical response has been sharply divided over the title track, a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic, which occurred exactly 100 years, six months and eight days ago.

Some people are calling "Tempest" Dylan's greatest masterpiece. The Los Angeles Times' Randy Lewis, for instance, referred to it as "one of the most extraordinary compositions from the most acclaimed songwriter of the rock era."

On the other hand, some reviewers say this song about a disaster IS a disaster. Alex Macpherson of London's Guardian newspaper wrote: "It narrates the sinking of the Titanic in tediously descriptive detail, and succeeds only in making one long to be on the Titanic, where you'd at least get both an adrenaline rush and a merciful end."

At any rate, whatever your feelings about Dylan's take on the sinking of the great British passenger ship that Captain Edward Smith infamously declared "even God couldn't sink" (an event which claimed more than 1,500 lives), the destruction of the Titanic has probably elicited more songs than any other disaster in modern history.

There are reports that street vendors were selling sheet music for songs about the Titanic within days of its tragic descent into the icy Atlantic depths south of Newfoundland. And the first Titanic-themed recordings were released less than three months after the catastrophe by a singer who recorded under his real name of Robert Carr, as well as the pseudonym of Ernest Gray. "Stand To Your Post" and "Be British" were both released on Edison-Bell's British Velvet Face label in mid-1912, and both sought to cast the Titanic disaster as a moment of British heroism.

It was a very different tack taken by blues artists like Leadbelly, who began playing his version of "The Titanic" the same year. Leadbelly's song is built upon the oft-claimed (but untrue) story that black boxer Jack Johnson had tried to board the Titanic, but was denied passage by the captain, who declared, "I ain't haulin' no coal!" The great blues singer almost seems to revel in the ship's eventual fate, as if it was a karmic retaliation for the institutionalized racism of the age.

Other songs over the years to memorialize the most famous nautical catastrophe of all time include "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down," which has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, and "Down With the Old Canoe," which was written and performed by Dorsey and Howard Dixon in 1938, just four years before Roy Acuff would score a major hit with the Dixon Brothers' equally lachrymose "The Wreck On the Highway." Of course, Acuff himself had been singing a song about "The Great Titanic" since the 1930s, although his 1954 re-recording may be better known nowadays. Even Harry Chapin, of "Cat's in the Cradle" fame, recorded a Titanic song in 1977, the title track from "Dance Band on the Titanic."

They may never pull the ship's rusted skeleton from its undersea grave, but as Bob Dylan's new album shows, as a topic for popular song, the Titanic rises again every few years.

Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, partnering with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado to promote the values of mutual respect, religious diversity, inclusiveness, compassion and justice.

Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.


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The Post Independent Updated Nov 21, 2012 04:58PM Published Nov 20, 2012 01:48PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.