|Illustration by David Kidney|
As a boy, back in the Sixties, I used to sing a song called “Were You There When That Great Ship Went Down.” I’m not sure where I first heard it, maybe from my grandmother, or my great-grandmother who looked after my brother and me on Saturday nights. “Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, were you there when that great ship went down?”
Then later, in 1986, Phil Alvin of The Blasters released a solo album called Un“Sung Stories” which had “Titanic Blues” on Side 2. It was not the same song, but rather an old blues tune that told the story of the Titanic disaster in only a few short verses. The boat hit an iceberg, it sank, and people died – kind of a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.
As I hunted around Google for any history of the song, I discovered that Leadbelly had claimed to write “Titanic Blues” in 1912, right after the tragedy. This is highly unlikely. The late 1920s is more likely. The Phil Alvin version is most probably based on the recording by Hi Henry & Charley Jordan released in 1932. If you continue to search Google, you discover that some folks blended the blues with “Were You There,” making that the chorus between the song’s verses.
There’s something haunting and true about the blues. I’ve located almost a dozen renditions of this song, done by country singers, bluegrass bands, and country blues singers. Phil Alvin’s rendition continues to be my favourite. The album was out of print for a long time, but is now available on iTunes. My drawing includes the first two verses, as sung by a nameless blues guitarist. This is not Hi Henry Brown, nor is it Phil Alvin, just someone I imagined who heard the song and was struck by the legend.
Phil Alvin's "Titanic Blues":
Hi Henry Brown's "Titanic Blues":
– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at http://rylander-rylander.blogspot.com. He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.