Bob Dylan and the Songwriters Inspired by Titanic

After the troubadour revealed he has written a track inspired by the doomed liner for his forthcoming album, Ralph McLean asks: who else?

So Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest contains a 14-minute title song that is apparently based on the sinking of the Titanic. Cue much salivating and gnashing of teeth from Dylanologists the world over as they sift through the wreckage of that statement to find method in their hero’s apparent madness.

Until Tempest is released on September 11, 2012 – and critics and Bob cats have a proper chance to digest the song's alleged 45 morale-sapping verses – it’s anyone’s guess as to what His Bobness will actually have to say about the most famous shipwreck in maritime history. One thing is for certain: the 71-year-old songwriter didn’t exactly spend much time on in depth research.

Dylan has said of the song, 'It's not very truthful, but a songwriter doesn't care about what's truthful. What he cares about is what should've happened, what could've happened. That's its own kind of truth.' Safe to day Dylan’s version of events won’t be turning up on the History Channel anytime soon then.

As if to confirm just how abstract this new epic might be, Dylan went on to reveal that actor Leonardo Di Caprio and James Cameron’s clueless movie, in which the baby-faced thespian starred, also get mentions.

'I don't think the song would be the same without him [Di Caprio], or the movie,' Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine as a world of music lovers, movie fans and history buffs shuddered in unison.

Ignoring the one-time king of the protest singers' free and loose attitude toward historical accuracy, and his questionable taste in blockbusters, Dylan's choosing to write about Titanic – particularly in the year when the long-awaited Titanic Belfast visitor centre opened for business – is an interesting development.

Songs about the ship have been popping up in all manner of unlikely places, from the charts to the stage for years now, and all Dylan is really doing is contributing to a bulging Titanic songbook that has been growing steadily since the ship famously sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1912.

By the author’s own admission, 'Tempest' quotes directly from one of the earliest ever songs written about the doomed Belfast-built liner, sharing a melody with The Carter Family classic 'The Titanic'.

A firm kid's favorite in American schools to this day, it’s been recorded by everyone from Dylan’s great hero, Woody Guthrie, to Leadbelly and even Sissy Spacek, who warbled it in the style of Loretta Lynn on the soundtrack to the film Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1980.

There was a positive glut of tunes marking the disaster in its immediate aftermath as songwriters around the world sought to make sense of it all.

That means any number of blues interpretations of the disaster – the most moving of which has to Blind Willie Johnson’s powerful 'God Moves On The Water' – gospel takes on the tale, such as William and Versey Smith’s washboard-driven 'It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down' – and country versions such as Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff’s 'Titanic' from 1956.

One of the earliest offerings came courtesy of Ernest Gray – a pseudonym for composer Robert Carr – who penned 'Be British' as a tribute to the stiff-upper-lip resolve of those who tried to help after the impact with the iceberg. This song was released 1912, when the disaster must have been painfully fresh in the minds of many.

There are timeless folk interpretations of the story also, such as 'The Sinking Of The Titanic' from New Orleans street musician Richard 'Rabbit' Brown that dates from 1927, and innumerable laments such as Hi Henry Brown and Charley Johnson’s 1930s recording of 'Titanic Blues' that wallows in the tragedy like only a great blues song knows how.

There are plenty of death-obsessed discs from down the years too, such as The Dixon Brothers' 'Down With The Old Canoe' that make for macabre listening for all but the most dedicated Titanic obsessive.
Of course the very mention of the T word summons up thoughts of music in the widest sense for many.

'Nearer My God to Thee', the piece allegedly played by the band on the deck as the ship went down, is inexorably linked with the Titanic story, and just a few bars of 'My Heart Will Go On', Celine Dion’s theme tune from James Cameron’s aforementioned Oscar magnate Titanic (1997), is usually enough to pierce the hardest of hearts. It certainly gives me a sinking feeling, at any rate.

It’s an event that has inspired numerous musical productions, from The Unsinkable Molly Brown to Belfast man Martin Lynch’s new Titanic Boys project, avant-garde art pieces like Gavin Bryers brilliant The Sinking Of The Titanic and more than 100 songs in just about every musical style imaginable.

Northern Irish classical composer Philip Hammond's 'Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic', performed in St Anne's Cathedral and St Peter's Cathedral in Belfast in spring 2012 as part of the one-off Titanic Festival of the Creative Arts, was a highlight of the cultural year.

So where does Bob Dylan’s Titanic offering fit into the larger scheme of things? Well, much as I hate to say it, it’s just the tip of the iceberg really, isn’t it?