Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"When That Great Ship Went Down" - William and Versey Smith


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Eight: "When That Great Ship Went Down" performed by William and Versey Smith. "Vocal duet with tambourine, guitar." Recorded in Chicago in August, 1927. Original issue Paramount 12505B (4685-728).

Much is unknown about William and Versey Smith. There is even contention over their place of origin. Some maintain that they came from Texas (based largely on their sanctified performance style, one assumes). Others maintain that the Smiths came from the Carolinas, based on a printed ballad with lyrics similar to those heard on this recording, credited to a W.O. Smith, a cab driver who worked in Durham between 1912 and 1915. What is known is that the Smiths, a husband and wife team who were said to be street singers, recorded four songs during a visit to Chicago in August of 1927, including "When The Great Ship Went Down." William Smith sings the lead vocal and plays guitar, while Versey Smith sings counterpoint and plays the tambourine. The other three songs they recorded include "I Believe I'll Go Back Home," "Everybody Help The Boys Come Home" and "Sinner, You'll Need King Jesus."

The tambourine is a musical instrument of the percussion family. It consists of a frame into which several pairs of cymbals, called zills, are set. The term "tambourine" specifically refers to instruments with a drum-head, although some varieties have no head at all. Although tambourines come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the most common shape is circular. The instrument was common to most ancient civilizations such as Persia, India, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. The word "tambourine" is derived from the Persian "tambūr", meaning "lute" or "drum." The tambourine was brought to the Americas by European settlers. The instrument became associated with African Americans in the south, who often included the tambourine in their religious music. The tambourine (along with the fiddle, the banjo, and bone castanets) became a major part of the Blackface Minstrel stage. Often the two "end men" were the tambourine and the bones players.

"When That Great Ship Went Down" recounts the sinking of the RMS Titanic, an Olympic class ocean liner owned by the White Star Shipping Line. On April 15 ,1912, Four days into its maiden voyage, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later. The sinking of the ship was considered to be particularly ironic, given that the White Star company had boasted that the ship was "unsinkable." The very name Titanic has become synonymous with hubris. For African Americans, the sinking of the unsinkable ship was doubly ironic, given that the White Star Line refused to allow blacks on board. By 1915, the story of the Titanic had been made the subject of at least one popular song, with other versions and variations appearing by 1920. Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Patton and Frank Hutchison, all of whom appear on the Anthology, recorded versions of the song.

The story of the Titanic has been retold countless times over the years, most notably in Walter Lord's 1955 book, A Night To Remember and in James Cameron's multi-Oscar-winning 1997 film, Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

On a Monday morning, just about nine o'clock.
Great Titanic began to reel and rock;
Children weepin' and cry,
"Yes, I'm going to die!"

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

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.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

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 he had to go.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

People on that ship, long ways from home.
Friends all around, didn't know the time had come.
Death come riding by,
Sixteen hundred had to die.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

People on that ship, long ways from home.
Friends all around, didn't know the time had come.
Death come riding by,
Sixteen hundred had to die.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

While they was building, said what they would do.
Now they would build a ship that water can't come through.
(Unintelligible)
Wasn't it sad when that great ship when down?


The repeated phrase, "Wasn't sad when that great ship went down" is ironic considering the almost celebratory mood of the recording. Neither of the Smiths seem to find the sinking of the Titanic (which had only happened fifteen years earlier) to be particularly tragic. Versey Smith's effusive shouts and spirited tambourine accompaniment imbue the song with a sanctified mood. It certainly would not have sounded out of place as a part of the disc of religious music which appears as the second part of the "Social Music" volume. This is not surprising considering that at least two of the four songs recorded by the Smiths during their sole session were gospel numbers, and their sound is firmly rooted in the ecstatic music of the Holiness Church.

"When That Great Ship Went Down" is the first of three songs in a row to feature disasters.

Blah blah blah the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. An all blues New Years edition of the podcast is currently in the planning stages and hopefully will be up by the end of the week. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

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Here's Raymond Crooke performing a version of "The Titanic" which is much closer to the version we used to sing at summer camp when I was a kid, yet is clearly related lyrically to "When That Great Ship Went Down."



Download and listen to William and Versey Smith - "When That Great Ship Went Down"

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