What have boxer Jack Johnson, blues singers Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Titanic to do with each other? And why did Leadbelly sound so cheerful in singing about the disaster?
At the moment here in Belfast we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic. Titanic fever is everywhere and we’ve just opened a brand new Titanic Centre filled with the latest technology so you can experience the ship and the history and it’s attracting visitors from all around the world.
The RMS Titanic was a passenger liner and in 1912 was the largest ship ever built and it was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the time the world’s foremost shipbuilding yard. Operated by the White Star line, she sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton in England on 10 April 1912. She carried 2,224 people.
Five days into her voyage to New York, the ship that was said to be unsinkable collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, south of Newfoundland, with the loss of 1,514 people. It was one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history. There were only 710 survivors.
Most of the world knows about Titanic today because of James Cameron’s 1997 film, starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. And of course, there’s the Celine Dion chart hit from the film My Heart Will Go On. What most people don’t know is the fact that the Titanic was the subject of a blues song, by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly.
The song, entitled “Titanic” was recorded in New York in 1948, but Leadbelly said that he started singing it with Blind Lemon Jefferson on Dallas street corners soon after the disaster in 1912. The song is upbeat, almost cheery, which seems strange, given the disasterous loss of human life in Titanic’s sinking. The song is very much about the exclusion of African-Americans from large parts of American society. It tells the fictional story of how Jack Johnson, the African American heavyweight boxing champion at the time, was refused boarding onto the ship by Captain Edward John Smith:
“When Jack Johnson wanted to get on boa’d Captain Smith hollered,
“I ain’ haulin’ no coal.”
Cryin’, “Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!”
Jack Johnson had won the world champion heavyweight title as the first black boxer in 1908. Jim Jeffries was touted as the “great white hope” to regain the title, but in July 1910, Johnson successfully defended his title and battered Jeffries to his knees. Black people throughout America hailed Johnson as a hero and saw him as taking revenge on their behalf for all the indignities they had suffered and continued to suffer at the hands of white people.
In Leadbelly’s song, Jack Johnson’ life is saved, having been refused passage due to the Captain’s racism, in the event of the great ship sinking.
“When he heard about that mighty shock,
Might o’ seen the man doin’ the Eagle Rock.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.”
The “Eagle Rock” mentioned in this verse was a dance, so Johnson’s response to the disaster was to dance for joy. Leadbelly follows up with:
“Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.”
So not only is the black hero of the song celebrating about his own near escape from death, but he seems to be exulting more generally at the idea that no African-Americans perished in the disaster and, perhaps, the last line sounds gleeful about the disaster itself. Before we pass judgement, perhaps we should consider another fictional story of the time.
This story was told in the New York Sun and other newspapers, and in Logan Marshall’s The Sinking of the Titanic, one of the first books written about the disaster, and concerns Titanic’s two wireless operators. After the ship struck the iceberg, one of the wireless operators went on deck to see what was happening. When he came back, “he found a Negro stoker creeping up behind” his colleague “and saw him raise a knife over his head.” Without giving any warning, the wireless man pulled out a gun and “shot the Negro dead.”
Black Americans in the southern States were only a generation away from slavery and their lives were still blighted by poverty, discrimination and harsh treatement by many whites. It would have been no surprise to them to find themselves portrayed as taking advantage of a terrible situation on board the Titanic. Or that summary judgement was carried out by the white stoker – it was a kind of lynching really. This portrayal of blacks as criminals by whites and newspapers was commonplace. Rarely, if ever, did heroism by blacks get reported. Just another element in the ingrained racism in the US at the time.
Which was why there came to be a great deal of interest in whether there, in fact, might have been black people on board the ship. One African American newpaper said, “It is rather remarkable that there could be so great a tragedy without a Negro somewhere concealed or exposed in it.” As it happened, there were no African Americans on board Titanic.
As we know, Titanic’s passengers included some of the wealthiest people in the world, as well as emigrants from various European countries seeking a new life in America. The ship was a wonder of the world of the time and a last word in comfort and luxury – it had a swimming pool, gym, libraries, opulent cabins and top-notch restaurants. For Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson and the people who enjoyed their song about the Titanic, the ship must have represented everything they perceived to be wrong about the world – a world of white privilege and comfort from which black people were excluded. The sinking of the ship, then, to people so badly scarred by the lives they endured, represented some sort of justice, a come-uppance to the white masters. From a strictly neutral point of view, to rejoice in any sort of human disaster seems terrible, but if we consider things from the standpoint of impoverished, racially-abused African Americans, then perhaps it is understandable.
And, of course, we find the same attitude of rejoicing in the oppressor’s suffering in the Bible. A few verses from the Psalms will suffice to give us other examples of people under oppression, who not only cry out to God for deliverance, but also for their oppressors to suffer:
- The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. (Psalm 58:10)
- May the days of the wicked be few; may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! (Psalm 109:10)
- Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! (Psalm 139:19)
Those of us living in freedom and relative prosperity – and indeed, because of globalization, who might be said to be part of cultures that are oppressive to others in the world – are really in no place to judge oppressed peoples who rejoice in the downfall of those they perceive to be part of the injustice which they suffer.
The way of Jesus, of course, is to “bless those who persecute you”. That is, in reality, pretty easy for well-off, free Europeans and Americans to do. If gets more difficult if you live in Syria, Sudan, China, the Congo or many other parts of the world where people suffer human rights abuses. The onus on us is to try and understand the sense of oppression and outrage that others feel and to do what we can to change the injustice that assails them – whether it be from their own governments, or because of conflict or because of the unjust trading relationships between our own countries and theirs. Just because we don’t personally experience it, or do so in trivial ways – injustice exists. Our world is based on it. If we say we follow Jesus, then it’s up to us to find some ways in which we try to change things. We’re all part of the problem. We need to be part of the solution as well.
Leadbelly talks and sings about Titanic