10 Songs Inspired by the RMS ‘Titanic’

Think Celine Dion’s iconic song “My Heart Will Go On” is the only tune about ‘Titanic’? Think again.

The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images (Titanic), Pavlo S/Shutterstock (musical notes)

On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was the ship’s maiden voyage; approximately 1500 people died. The tragedy of the “unsinkable ship” has been adapted into films many times since then, but the most famous is James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic with its blockbuster theme song, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” What you might not know is that there are quite a few other songs about Titanic—some of them by artists you’re probably very familiar with. Here are 10 tunes about the Titanic that don’t involve hearts, going on, or a tin whistle.

“The Titanic” // Lead Belly 

Three films about the Titanic came out the year the ship sank, and there were also many songs composed shortly after the event. One of them, titled simply “The Titanic,” was sung by a number of people, including Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. The musician found success after he was discovered during one of his stints in prison and became well known for both his voice and his talent with the 12-string guitar. Later, Ledbetter would say that “The Titanic” was the first song he learned on the 12-string.

While the song is mostly a simple retelling of events, the lyric “Jack Johnson want to get on board / Captain said, ‘I ain’t hauling no coal’” referred to a rumor that Titanic captain Edward Smith refused to let Johnson board the ship because he was Black. And while there’s certainly a lot to be said about race insofar as it relates to the Titanic and its passengers, there’s no evidence that Johnson specifically was anywhere near the Titanic, let alone that he attempted to board it.

“Tempest” // Bob Dylan

The moment someone tells you that Bob Dylan wrote a song about the Titanic, it feels obvious. But then you scan through the points in his catalog where you’d expect a song about the Titanic to be. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan? Nope. The Times They Are A-Changin’? Afraid not. Blonde on Blonde? No dice.

Dylan didn’t get around to singing about the Titanic until the title track of his 2012 record Tempest. Inspired by the Carter Family’s song “The Titanic” (and Cameron’s movie—Leonardo DiCaprio even shows up in the lyrics), Dylan’s near 14-minute-long tune focuses on feelings of loss and regret at the end of life. But that doesn’t mean Dylan wrote entirely sentimentally: There are plenty of lyrics about how “Brother rose up ‘gainst brother” and especially barbed lines about the “traitors” and “turncoats” breaking backs and necks to get on lifeboats. 

“God Moves on the Water” // Blind Willie Johnson

While “God Moves on the Water” isn’t, so far as we know, a song composed by evangelist and blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, his 1929 recording is the earliest one available. “God Moves on the Water” is focused as much on God as it is on the Titanic: With lyrics like “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,” Johnson isn’t just singing about the Titanic—he’s singing about those who seek salvation through divine redemption in the final moments of life. “God Moves on the Water” remains popular to this day; it’s been covered repeatedly, even as recently as 2020 by Larkin Poe.

“Titanic” // Falco

Most of us know Falco for his 1985 hit song “Rock Me Amadeus,” about the world-famous composer who’d had an enormously successful, award-winning biopic released just the year before. How fortunate for Falco. Unfortunately for Falco, “Titanic,” from his album Nachtflug, came out in 1992, five years before the James Cameron film re-popularized the story of the Titanic. Would Falco’s track have been an international success if it had come out within a year of Rose promising Jack that she’ll never let go? Stranger things have happened, but the fact that the song was mostly sung in German made it unlikely.

The lyrics translate almost as celebration of the decadence of the time rather than view it as a cautionary tale: “The Titanic sinks in panic ... She’ll go down in history / ’Cause the unsinkable Titanic’s / Decadence in mystery.” That is certainly one way to look at things!

“Be British” // Ernest Gray

“Be British” from 1912 celebrates how stiff those English upper lips can be even in the face of certain death. The lyrics are exactly what you’d expect them to be: “What a glorious thing it is to know / When dangers hour was nigh / When the mighty liner sank to her rest / Our men knew how to die.” 

Ernest Gray was a pseudonym; the song was actually performed by a man named Robert Carr, and sales of the record—which has another song, “Stand by your Post”—went to the Titanic Relief Fund.

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“Titanic Blues” // Hi Henry Brown

When it comes to Hi Henry Brown and his song “Titanic Blues,” information is pretty scarce: Brown was a country blues singer who may have come from Pace, Mississippi. He recorded six songs in New York City in 1932, including “Titanic Blues,” which shares a record with another track titled “Preacher Blues.”

Lyrically, “Titanic Blues” deals in the pragmatic, everyday nature of death, even tragic deaths. “Some was drinkin’, some was playing cards ... Some was in the corner praying to their God.” Two decades after the Titanic sank and a few years into America’s Great Depression, it’s not surprising this musical retelling of events is less plaintive and more matter-of-fact.

“Down With The Old Canoe” // The Dixon Brothers

The people who built the Titanic didn’t advertise it as unsinkable: While the word was used in ad copy, it was typically preceded by words like practically. Those qualifiers got eliminated after the sinking, and in the cultural zeitgeist, Titanic became a victim of the White Star Line’s hubris. The Dixon Brothers—South Carolina mill workers Dorsey and Howard Dixon—worked that into their song “Down With The Old Canoe,” recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina, on January 25, 1938. “The great ship was built by man, that is why she could not stand / ‘She could not sink’ was the cry from one and all / But an iceberg ripped her side and it cut down all her pride / They found the hand of God was in it all.” In short, if you’re looking for sympathy, don’t call the brothers Dixon.

“When That Great Ship Went Down” // William and Versey Smith

As is the case with a lot of Titanic songs recorded well after the tragedy, it’s likely that some form of “When the Great Ship Went Down” was written shortly after the actual incident before being passed down like a game of musical telephone. Married performers William and Versey Smith recorded it in 1927. “When the Great Ship Went Down” has a point to make about the wealthy and how heartless they can be: “When that ship left England, making for the shore / The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor / Put the poor below / Where first they had to go.”

“The Titanic” // Ernest Stoneman

Ernest V. Stoneman’s “The Titanic” (which was later re-recorded as “The Sinking of the Titanic”) has virtually the same lyrics as William and Versey Smith’s “When the Great Ship Went Down,” but the structure of the song is totally different otherwise. Stoneman’s composition and the recording bear little resemblance to the Smiths’ version. Interestingly, despite the similarity to other songs, Stoneman and this song were specifically acknowledged with a Grammy award in 2013.

“The Titanic Is Doomed and Sinking” // Owen Lynch

Owen Lynch wrote the lyrics to “The Titanic is Doomed and Sinking,” while the music was composed by William H. Farrell. And unlike most songs on this list, we know for a fact that this song was created by these two people in 1912 because the New York Public Library has the sheet music in its digital collections.

“The Titanic Is Doomed and Sinking” has several verses; one of them covers the Titanic’s sinking, while others are devoted to the heroic actions of John Jacob Astor and the theory that Captain Edward Smith was trying to break a speed record when Titanic hit the iceberg. The chorus features imagery about the “whale and shark” who surround the Titanic where “she’s lost forever more.” Grim.

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