Ernest Stoneman’s First Hit: “The Titanic”

By Jessica Turner, September 1, 2017

The unsinkable RMS Titanic sank in the cold Atlantic waters on April 15, 1912, claiming over 1,500 lives of its passengers and crew, and capturing the attention and imagination of the world from that moment forward. After years of searching, the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered on September 1, 1985; researchers continue to study the wreckage and ephemera that connects to the ship and its passengers, and the story of the Titanic still resonates today.

1912 engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

To mark the date of that discovery, we wanted to explore the retelling of the Titanic’s story in song – as with many disasters of the day, the wreck of the Titanic gave rise a few years later to a song detailing this contemporary history, one that was part of people’s lives and memories. In early September 1924, Appalachian musician Ernest “Pop” Stoneman traveled to New York to make his first recordings with OKeh Records, part of a few days of recording that also included Fiddlin’ John Carson and several other musicians as OKeh continued to build their catalog of popular American music. Stoneman chose two songs for this session, one of which was “The Titanic.”

That first recording in 1924 was not released – Stoneman and the OKeh executives thought that it was too fast, so he agreed to travel back to New York to do another recording of the song. On January 8, 1925, he recorded it again, and it was released later that year. This version of “The Titanic” (OK 40288) was a success, which led to further trips to New York to cut new records. He then recorded the song again in 1926, this time under the title “The Sinking of the Titanic” for the Edison label (Ed 51823, 5200).

Stoneman’s lyrics to “The Titanic” tell the story well, including a bit of social commentary about the difference between rich and poor on the voyage:

It was on Monday morning just about one o’clock,
That the great Titanic begin to reel and rock.
Then the people began to cry, saying, “Lord I’m a-going to die.”
It was sad when that great ship went down.

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

When they were building the Titanic, they said what they could do.
They were going to build a ship that no water could not go through,
But God with his mighty hand showed to the world it could not stand.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus

When they left England, they were making for the shore.
The rich they declared they would not ride with the poor.
So they sent the poor below, they were the first that had to go.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus

When the people on the ship were a long ways from home,
With friends all around them, didn’t know their time had come,
For death came riding by, sixteen hundred had to die.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus

Stoneman wasn’t the only artist to record a song detailing the Titanic’s sad fate. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921—1942 details the various recordings of the song:

“The Titanic,” Ernest Stoneman September 4, 1924 (unissued) and January 8, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Vernon Dalhart, June 4, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” George Reneau, October 14, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Ernest Stoneman, June 22, 1926

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Richard “Rabbit” Brown, March 11, 1927

“Sinking of the Great Titanic,” Vernon Dalhart, May 23, 1928

Long after these early hits of hillbilly and blues records, the Titanic lives on in imaginations. Celine Dion’s “Love Theme from Titanic” (also called “My Heart Will Go On”) won a Grammy in 1999 for Record of the Year; the song was the theme song from James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film Titanic, which won 11 Oscars. And visitors pour into the many exhibits that chronicle the Titanic‘s history and display its once-seabound artifacts, including the Titanic museum attraction just down the road in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

And in 2013, Ernest Stoneman’s “The Titanic” was recognized with its own Grammy award when it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and recognized for its historical significance in recording history.

Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

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