Numerous songs were produced in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. According to the American folklorist D.K. Wilgus, Titanic inspired "what seems to be the largest number of songs concerning any disaster, perhaps any event in American history." In 1912–3 alone, over a hundred songs are known to have been produced in the US; the earliest known commercial song about Titanic was copyrighted just ten days after the disaster. Numerous pieces of sheet music and gramophone records were subsequently produced. In many cases they were not simply mere commercial exploitation of a tragedy (though that certainly did exist) but were a genuine and deeply felt popular response to an event that evoked many contemporary political, moral, social and religious themes. They drew a variety of lessons from the disaster, such as the levelling effect of the rich and poor, good and bad dying indiscriminately; the rich getting what they deserved; a lack of regard for God leading to the removal of divine protection; the heroism of the men who died; the role of human pride and hubris in causing the disaster. The disaster inspired what D. Brian Anderson refers to as "countless forgettable hymns". Many of the more secular songs celebrated the bravery of the men who had gone down with the ship, often highlighting their high social status and wealth and conflating it with their self-sacrifice and perceived moral worth. A popular song of the time proclaimed:
There were millionaires from New York,
And some from London Town.
They were all brave, there were men and women to save
When the great Titanic went down.
John Jacob Astor's death was highlighted as a particular example of noblesse oblige regarding his reputed refusal to leave the ship while there were still spaces in the lifeboats for women and children. The song "A Hero Went Down with the Monarch of the Sea" described Astor as "a handsome prince of wealth, / Who was noble, generous and brave" and ended: "Good-bye, my darling, don't you grieve for me, / I would give my life for ladies to flee." "The Titanic Is Doomed and Sinking" was even more laudatory:
There was John Jacob Astor,
What a brave man was he
When he tried to save all female sex,
The young and all, great and small,
Then got drowned in the sea.
The self-sacrifice of captains of industry such as Astor was seen as all the more remarkable as it was made not just to aid their own womenfolk, but to help save those of much lower social status. As one Denver columnist put it, "the disease-bitten [immigrant] child, whose life at best is less than worthless, goes to safety with the rest of the steerage riff-raff, while the handler[s] of great affairs, ... whose energies have uplifted humanity, stand unprotestingly aside."
The Titanic disaster became a popular theme for balladeers, blues, bluegrass and country singers in the Southern United States. Bluesman Ernest Stoneman scored one of his biggest hits with his song "The Titanic" in 1924, which was said to have sold over a million copies and became one of the best-selling songs of the 1920s. The story of how his song was written illustrates the way the popular culture around Titanic cross-fertilised across different genres. According to Stoneman, he took the lyrics from a poem which he had seen in a newspaper. He "put a tune to it", most likely meaning that he adapted an existing tune with a suitable rhyme and meter. It subsequently emerged that the author of the poem was another country singer, Carson Robison, writing under the pseudonym "E. V. Body". Other songs were written and performed by Rabbit Brown, Frank Hutchison, Blind Willie Johnson and the Dixon Brothers, who drew an explicit religious message from the sinking: "if you go on with your sins," you too will go "down with the old canoe." In "Desolation Row," the final track of his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan sings "praise be to Nero's Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn"; the poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot are pictured as "fighting in the captain's tower," disregarded by spectators. Dylan would later write and record an entire song about the disaster for his 2012 album Tempest, interpolating images from the 1997 film within the song's narrative.
British songwriters commemorated the disaster with appeals to religious, chauvinistic and heroic sentiments. Songs were published with titles such as "Stand to Your Post (Women and Children First!)" and "Be British (Dedicated to the Gallant Crew of the Titanic)", the latter referring to the mythical last words of Captain Smith. "The Ship That Will Never Return" by F. V. St Clair proclaimed: "The women and children the first for the boats –! And sailors knew how to obey," while "Be British" urged listeners to remember the plight of the survivors and donate to the charitable funds set up to assist them: "Show that you are willing! with a penny or a shilling! for those they've left behind."
In African-American culture :-
The sinking of the Titanic had a particular resonance for African-Americans, who saw the ship as a symbol of the hubris of white racism and its sinking as retribution for the mistreatment of black people. It was commemorated in a famous 1948 song by the blues singer Lead Belly, "The Titanic (Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well)". Popular legend had it that there were no black people aboard.[b] Lead Belly's song portrays the black American boxing champion Jack Johnson attempting to board Titanic but being refused by Captain Smith, who tells him: "I ain't hauling no coal."[c] Johnson remains on shore, bitterly bidding Titanic farewell, and dances the Eagle Rock as the ship goes under.
The legend of the Titanic merged with that of a character in black folklore known as "Shine", a sort of trickster figure who was probably named after shoeshine. He was converted into a mythical black stoker aboard Titanic whose exploits were commemorated in "Toasts", long narrative poems performed in a dramatic and percussive fashion which were a forerunner of modern-day rapping. He is portrayed as a central figure in the disaster, a person from "down below" who is the first to warn the captain about the water flooding in but is rebuked: "Go on back and start stackin' sacks, / we got nine pumps to keep the water back." He refuses, telling the captain: "Your shittin' is good and your shittin' is fine, / but there's one time you white folks ain't gonna shit on Shine."
Shine is the only person aboard capable of swimming to safety and refuses, in revenge for the mistreatment of himself and his kin, to save the drowning white people. They offer him all manner of rewards, including "all the pussy eyes ever did see", but to no avail; "Shine say, 'One thing about you white folks I couldn't understand: / you all wouldn't offer me that pussy when we was all on land." He also receives marriage proposals from the wealthy women, in particular the captain's pregnant and unmarried daughter, but rejects them. In some versions another black man named Jim joins Shine in the water but is lost when he succumbs to the white people's allures and swims back to his death on the sinking ship. Shine swims all the way on to New York, outracing a whale or a shark along the way, although in some versions he goes off course and makes landfall in Los Angeles instead:
He swimmed on till he came to New York town,
And people asked had the Titanic gone down.
Shine said "Hell yeah." They said, "How do you know?"
He said, "I left the big motherfucker sinkin' about thirty minutes ago."
In the end he finds a drink and a woman to keep him company, and as one version puts it,
When all them white folks went to heaven
Shine was in Sugar Ray's bar drinking Seagram Seven.
The moral of the Toast is that neither the white man's money nor his women are worth the risk of acquiring them, therefore they should not be aspired to or coveted by black people. The unmarried pregnant captain's daughter is a sign that "even white nobility can transgress", as Paul Heyer puts it, and that white skin is not synonymous with purity. Also present in the Toast is the more general theme of a warning against overconfidence in the white man's technology.
Concerts and musicals :-
Many composers also tackled the subject of the ship's sinking. Concerts were a major part of the fund-raising effort after the disaster; a super-orchestra of five hundred musicians played to a packed Royal Albert Hall under the direction of Sir Edward Elgar to raise money for the families of the musicians lost when Titanic sank. Other musical responses sought to evoke the disaster in musical form. Soon after the sinking a "Descriptive Musical Sketch (Piano, Chorus and Reciter)" was staged, and those wanting to re-enact the disaster at home could listen to the recording of "The Wreck of the Titanic", a "Descriptive Piano Solo, right from the scene where the ship's bell rings for departure to the pathetic 'burial at sea' ... reminiscent of the sad disaster which will live in history as long as the world rolls on." There was even a Titanic Two-Step which was derived from a then-popular dance craze, though it is unclear how the dance steps were supposed to represent the sinking ship.
Several musicals have been produced based on the story of the Titanic. Perhaps the best-known, as of its premiere in 1960, is The Unsinkable Molly Brown, dramatised and with music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, who had drawn his inspiration from Gene Fowler's 1949 book The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown. The Broadway musical presents a considerably embellished version of the real Margaret Brown's exploits; it portrays her taking command of a Titanic lifeboat and keeping the survivors in her charge going with bravado and her pistol. The writer Steven Biel notes that Molly Brown plays on American stereotypes of resilience and exceptionalism with a hint of isolationism. It was made into a film of the same title in 1964, starring Debbie Reynolds.
Another Titanic musical, called Titanic: A New Musical, opened in April 1997 in New York to mixed reviews. John Simon of New York magazine admitted approaching it "with a bit of a sinking feeling" and concluded that it was "an earnest but hopelessly mediocre show", which was not so much hit-and-miss as "almost all miss." People magazine was much more complimentary, saying that it took "guts to write a musical about the century's most infamous disaster, yet Broadway's Titanic unflinchingly sails forth with its cargo of epic themes". The lavish production incorporated a tilting stage to simulate the sinking. It was a major box-office success; the musical won five Tony Awards and played on Broadway for two years, with performances also held in Germany, Japan, Canada and Australia.
In 2012, Robin Gibb's Titanic Requiem was performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but met with little critical or commercial success.
Plays, dance, and multimedia works :-
Various plays have featured the disaster either as their principal subject or in passing. One of the earliest directly addressing the sinking of the Titanic (albeit in a thinly disguised form) was The Berg: A Play (1929) by Ernest Raymond that is said to have been the basis of the film Atlantic. Noël Coward's highly successful 1931 play Cavalcade, adapted into an Oscar-winning film of the same name in 1933, has a romantic plot which features a shock ending set aboard the Titanic.
In 1974 the disaster was used as the backdrop for the play Titanic, which D. Brian Anderson characterises as "a one-act sexual farce". The passengers and crew eagerly await the arrival of the iceberg but the ship fails to find it. While Titanic wanders the ocean looking for the iceberg, those aboard fill the time by making a series of sexual revelations, such as the disclosure by one girl that she "used to enjoy keeping a mammal in her vagina." When the collision does eventually come, it turns out to be a practical joke by the captain's wife. The off-Broadway production, whose cast included a young Sigourney Weaver, received what Anderson describes as "howling reviews".
Jeffrey Hatcher's 1992 play Scotland Road (the title refers to a passageway on Titanic) is a psychological mystery which opens with the discovery of a dehydrated woman found on an iceberg in the North Atlantic in 1992. She wears 1912-style clothing but can only say the word "Titanic". The great-grandson of John Jacob Astor investigates whether the woman is a genuine survivor from 1912, somehow projected forward through time, or is part of some bizarre hoax. More recently the British playwrights Stewart Love and Michael Fieldhouse have written plays (Titanic (1997) and The Song of the Hammers (2002) respectively) that address the often-neglected aspect of the views and experiences of the men who built the Titanic.
There have also been a number of dance and multimedia productions. The Canadian choreographer Cornelius Fischer-Credo devised a dance work called The Titanic Days which, in turn, was adapted for the title track of an album by the singer Kirsty MacColl. The Belgian dance company Plan K performed a work called Titanic at the 1994 Belfast Festival in which a flotilla of refrigerators – in real life part of the cargo aboard Titanic – stands in for the drifting mass of ice that ultimately destroys the ship.
The British composer Gavin Bryars created a multimedia work called The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), based on the conceit that "sounds never completely die but merely grow fainter and fainter. What if the music of the Titanic's band might still be playing 2,500 fathoms under the sea?" The piece uses a collage of sounds, ranging from underwater recordings to reminiscences of survivors and morse code messages, to evoke the sounds of the Titanic. As Foster puts it,
We hear a muffled voice, like a drowned survivor giving testimony from beneath the waves, as it were, and the swaying music of the water, and at the section's end the ominous drips as of water that magnify into depth-soundings, the voice now silent or merged into ocean, abyss, the underwater echoes of our fate.
The work was first issued on record in 1975, as the first release on Brian Eno's short-lived label Obscure Records (paired with Bryars' composition "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet").
Slideshows and newsreels :-
Advertisement for a Titanic newsreel, 26 April 1912. Fake Titanic newsreels were so prevalent by this time that some companies offered "guarantees" that their own footage was genuine.
A deceptive advertisement for a British Titanic newsreel; the carefully worded advert obscures the fact that the footage was actually of the RMS Olympic, shot a year earlier.
Within days of Titanic's sinking, newsreels and even slide shows were playing in crowded cinemas and theatres in the United States and Europe. By the end of April 1912, no fewer than nine American companies had issued sets of Titanic slides that could be bought or rented for public showings, accompanied by posters, lobby photos, lecture scripts and sheet music.
They were intended to be shown as part of a mixed programme combining magic lantern slides with short dramatic, comic and scenic films. Charles A. Pryor of New York's Pryor and Clare was among the first photographers to make it aboard the Carpathia on her return from the scene of the sinking and took many pictures of Captain Rostron, the Titanic's survivors and Carpathia's crew. His subsequent advertising, published in the New York Clipper, emphasised the likely level of popular interest:
MR THEATRE MANAGER
Pack your Theatre with the BIGGEST SENSATION OF THE AGE
"The Great Titanic Disaster"
Mr. Chas. A. Pryor ... chartered a tug boat, and has the real genuine money getter ... [the pictures] are GREAT, showing all notable persons connected with the tragedy, the lifeboats, the life preservers, and have the last bill of fare that was served on the Titanic.
Slide shows made less of an impact on British audiences, who seem to have preferred a more "artistic" approach. One of the most elaborate visual responses to the disaster was a "Myriorama" (a neologism meaning "many scenes") titled The Loss of the Titanic performed by Charles William and John R. Poole, whose family had been staging such shows since the 1840s. It involved the use of a series of scenes painted on fine gauze sheets, manipulated in such a way that they would appear to dissolve from one scene to the next while music was played and a dramatic and emotive recital was performed in the foreground. According to the publicity material for the Titanic Myriorama, it featured "the spectacle staged in its entirety by John R. Poole, and every endeavour made to convey a true pictorial idea of the whole history of the disaster ... Unique Mechanical and Electric Effects, special music and the story described in a thrilling manner." The "Immortal Tale of Simple Heroism" was performed through eight tableaux, starting with "A splendid marine effect of the Gigantic Vessel gliding from the Quayside at Southampton" and ending with praise for "the simple courage which remains for ever a proud heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race." According to contemporary reports, the show "often reduced audiences to tears."
Newsreels on the Titanic disaster were hampered by the fact that hardly any footage of the ship existed. A few seconds of film of Titanic's launching on 31 May 1911 were shot in Belfast by local company Films Limited, and the Topical Budget Company appears to have had some footage – now lost – of the ship at Southampton. Other than that, all that existed were photographs, which were of only limited use in a motion picture. Newsreel strands, such as the Gaumont Film Company's Animated Weekly, made up for the lack of footage of the ship itself by splicing in newly shot material of the aftermath of the sinking. These included scenes such as Carpathia arriving at New York, the Titanic survivors disembarking and the crowds gathering outside the White Star Line offices in Brooklyn as lists of the casualties were being posted.
Gaumont's Titanic newsreel was hugely successful and played to packed houses around the world. The first Titanic newsreels appeared in Australia as early as 27 April, while in Germany the Martin Dentler company promised that its Titanic newsreel would "guarantee a full house!". In many places, patrons were handed copies of "Nearer, My God, To Thee" to sing at the close of the film (according to German cinema owner Fred Berger, "much lusty singing took place at [the] screening") while in Britain a family of entertainers used their Gavioli organ to provide the Gaumont newsreel with an accompaniment of nautical tunes. Even though Gaumont was a French company, its Titanic did comparatively poorly in its home country; this was perhaps due to the local news being dominated not by Titanic but by the simultaneous capture of the Bonnot Gang of anarchist bandits.
Some movie companies tried to make up for the lack of footage by passing off film of other liners as being of the Titanic, or marketing the footage of Titanic's launch as showing her sinking. The proprietor of one cinema on New York's 34th Street was beaten up several times by angry customers who fell victim to one such scam. The Dramatic Mirror reported that "both eyes had been blacked and several teeth have been lost, and a blue-black bruise ... now covers almost the entire southern aspect of his face." He was defiant all the same: "Even after I pay the doctor and the dentist I'll clear five hundred dollars. And there isn't an untruthful word in those advertisements. There ain't nobody can say I ain't a gent." In Bayonne, New Jersey, a cinema was the scene of a riot on 26 April 1912 after it falsely advertised a film showing "the sinking of the Titanic and the rescue of her survivors." The New York Evening World reported the following day that the local police had to intervene after "the audience having been led to believe they were to see something sensational, uttered loud protests. Seats were torn loose in one theatre." In the end, the local police chief banned the performance. Similar public outrage and disorder resulting from a proliferation of fake Titanic disaster reels prompted the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee to ban "any moving picture reels portraying the Titanic disaster or any phase thereof". The mayors of Philadelphia and Boston soon followed suit.
However, the Titanic newsreel bubble soon burst, and by August 1912 trade newspapers were reporting that compilations of stock footage of Titanic intercut with pictures of icebergs "don't attract audiences any more."
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