Saturday, April 14, 2012

Remembering the Titanic: "God Moves on the Water" by Blind Willie Johnson

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, I could not think of a more appropriate way of remembering it than through an old blues song. Blind Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945) is one of the lesser known blues singers today; however, his music has not only influenced many diverse musicians but also has been launched into space via the Voyager Golden Record.

In this song, Blind Willie recounts the tragedy of the Titanic while infusing his trademark spiritual undertone into it. His haunting, reverberating voice gives the song a poignant element that draws the listener in. Through this song, I really feel a connection with the pain, sadness and unimaginable horror the passengers must have faced.





Lyrics:

Ah, Lord, ah, Lord
Year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day
Great Titanic struck an iceberg, people had to run and pray
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
The guards who had been a-watching, asleep 'cause they were tired
When they heard the great excitement, then a gunshot was fired
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
Captain Smith gave orders, women and children first
Many of the lifeboats piled right up, many were liable to crush
God moves on, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
Ahh-ah
So many had to leave their happy home, all that they possess
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
Women had to leave their loving ones, see 'bout their safety
When they heard the liner was doomed, hearts did almost break
God moves, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
A.G. Smith, mighty man, built a boat that he couldn't understand
Named it a name of God in a tin, without a "c", Lord, he pulled it in
God moves, ah, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
(spoken: Well) Ahh, ah, Lord

---

One line always stands out due to Blind Willies thick accent: “Named it a name of God in a tin, without a ‘c’, Lord, he pulled it in.” It has been questioned if this is in fact what he is saying. As it stands, this is how the lyric is commonly written, however it does sound somewhat nonsensical. After amplifying and repeating this line a few times, I have come to different conclusion and will offer an alternative rendition. This is what I think he is actually saying:

“Gave it a name of a god in a tin; into the sea, Lord, he pulled it in.”

While still odd, my interpretation makes more sense. The first half is a reference to the ship’s name and the arrogance of naming it after the Greek gods and essentially making an idol of a piece of tin. Therefore, in the second half, God sinks it as a chastisement for calling their idolized ship “unsinkable.” This interpretation is placed in the chronologically correct place in the song and it sits well with public opinion of the time.

Also, “A.G. Smith” is likely meant to be “Eddie Smith,” the captain of the Titanic. Even though he did not build the ship, sometimes liberties are taken in songs. Since he clearly refers to “Captain Smith” in an earlier verse, it is evident that he was aware that he was the captain, not the builder of the ship.

After one hundred years, the Titanic is still remembered. One thousand five hundred seventeen people met their end in the freezing North Atlantic waters, most of which were never found.

It also serves as a reminder that despite the pomp and decadence associated with the first class passengers and the stark poverty of the third class, we are all human beings at the end of the day. The black, unforgiving waters will swallow us all indiscriminately and what we think to be our grandest accomplishments, be it the unsinkable Titanic or the Tower of Babel, are all dwarfed by the inconceivable magnitude of Nature.

2 comments:

  1. Didn't know of the Blind Willie connection, so thanks for sharing that. Maybe another reason why this tragedy is so dominant in popular consciousness is for its message that science and technology can't always save humanity.

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    Replies
    1. Obviously neither can god.

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