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                            American Folk Song (c.1915)

                                      The Great Titanic

One of the most popular childrens' summer camp songs in the United States is based on the Titanic disaster. The lyrics to this modern version (often titled Titanic (Husbands and Wives) or It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down) can be found in many camp songbooks, on many web pages, and even on some recordings. Instead of daring to select a definitive version from the various regional variations of the modern camp song, this page attempts to trace this particular Titanic song back as close as possible to its origins. The earliest version I was able to find is given below. There are a variety of distinctly different Titanic folk songs that are not discussed here, but are mentioned in the references given at the bottom.

Folk songs about the Titanic disaster seemed to appear almost immediately after it occured. Within a decade, information on these songs began to appear in the literature. Perkins (1922) notes that:

The 'Titanic' sank on Sunday, April 14, 1912. The following Sunday I saw on a train a blind preacher selling a ballad he had composed on the disaster. The title was "Didn't that ship go down?" I remember one stanza:—
"God Almighty talked like a natural man, Spoke so the people could understand."

Recordings of songs about the disaster appeared almost as early, with Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt's El Mole Rachamim (für Titanik) being recorded on June 29, 1913 (King, Sapoznik, and Waits, 2007).

An early version of the current song is reported in White's (1928) American Negro Folk-Songs. The song is listed as having been heard in 1915 or 1916 as "Sung by Negro on streets of Hackleburg in Northwest Ala." (The tune is given in the appendix of that book.) A second early version is found in the Frank C. Brown Collection (Newman, Belden, and Hudson, 1952). This 'version D' was titled The Great Titanic and is listed as having been contributed by a Miss Fanny Grogan on Nov. 30, 1920 from Zionville, NC. This version is listed by Laws (1964) as "D 24, The Titanic I", and is very similar to several other versions in Frank C. Brown Collection, as well as to one obtained in Gatlinburg Tennessee in 1929 from a Miss Lara Ogle and transcribed by Henry (1931).

Early recordings of this ballad include The Titanic, recorded by Ernest Stoneman on September 24, 19241, and When That Great Ship Went Down, recorded by William and Versey Smith in August of 1927. Both can be found on King, et.al. (2007) and the latter can also be found on Smith (1997)2. Stoneman's recording was particularly popular, and is claimed to have sold two million copies (Murrells, 1984).

The 1915/1916 lyrics as reported by White (1928) are:

                  The Great Titanic

  It was on one Monday morning just about one o'clock
  When that great Titanic began to reel and rock;
  People began to scream and cry,
  Saying, "Lord, am I going to die?"


  It was sad when that great ship went down,
  It was sad when that great ship went down,
  Husbands and wives and little children lost their lives,
  It was sad when that great ship went down.

  When that ship left England it was making for the shore,
  The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor,
  So they put the poor below,
  They were the first to go.

  While they were building they said what they would do,
  We will build a ship that water can't go through;
  But God with power in hand
  Showed the world that it could not stand.

  Those people on that ship were a long ways from home,
  With friends all around they did n't know that the time had come;
  Death came riding by,
  Sixteen hundred had to die.

  While Paul was sailing his men around,
  God told him that not a man should drown;
  If you trust and obey,
  I will save you all to-day.

  You know it must have been awful with those people on the sea,
  They say that they were singing, "Nearer My God to Thee."
  While some were homeward bound,
  Sixteen hundred had to drown.

The North Carolina version D has a similar chorus to the above Alabama version:

Oh it was sad when that great ship went down.
Their were husbands and their wives,
Little children lost their lives.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

with each verse ending in "It was sad when the great ship went down." as well. Beyond this, there a several slight differences in wording, but the primary differences between these two sets of lyrics and the two recordings are the order in which the verses occur:

Order of Verses
1915/1916 Alabama 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
1920 North Carolina D 1, 3, 2, 6, 4, 5
1924 Stoneman Recording 1, 3, 2, 4
1927 Smith Recording 1, 2, 2, 4, 4, first half of 3


1 - Russell (2004) indicates that the September 24 dating of Stoneman's recording applies to an unreleased track with another of the same name being recorded on January 8, 1925.

2 - The text supplement provided with this recording claims that the song is similar to one in the Frank C. Brown Collection at Duke, written by a W.O. Smith of Oxford, NC in 1920. However, it appears to be much more similar to the other versions listed above, and this might call into question Smith's claim that it is evidence that William and Versey Smith came from the Carolinas and not from Texas as some others had claimed.


  • Henry, M.E. (1931). More Songs from the Southern Highlands. Journal of American Folk-Lore, 44, 111-112.

  • King, C.C., Sapoznik, H., and Waits, T. eds. (2007). People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938. [CD] New York: Tompkins Square.

  • Laws, G.M. (1964). Native American Balladray, Revised Edition. Philadelphia: the American Folklore Society.

  • Murrells, J. (1984). Million Selling Records from the 1900s to the 1980s: An Illustrated Directory. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd.

  • Perkins, A.E. (1922). Negro Spirituals from the Far South. Journal of American Folk-Lore, 35, 223.

  • Russell, T. (2004). Country Music Records: A Dicography, 1921-1942. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Smith, H. (1997). Anthology of American Folk Music. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways/Sony Music Special Products.

  • White, Newman I. (1928). American Negro Folk-Songs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • White, Newman, I., Belden, H.M., Hudson, A.P. eds. (1952). The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Volume Two. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Please reference White (1928) for the above version of the song. This page itself can be cited as:

  • Habing, B. (2008, September 28). The Great Titanic - American Folk Song. Retrieved from http://www.potw.org/archive/potw76a.html