A hundred years ago, the world was awash in songs, poems and paintings about the Titanic. And then came movies.
What elements in the story of the Titanic make it such a popular story
The sheer scale of the tragedy with such great loss of life and the fact that it happened on the largest ship of its time would in themselves make the story significant but there are some extra elements caught the popular imagination and have kept it gripped ever since.
In fact there have been numerous films featuring the tragedy of the Titanic. Within a month of its subject's demise 'Saved from the Titanic' was released in the USA. A British 'talking movie' came out in 1929 'Atlantic' but didn't use the name of the ship for legal reasons and in 1943 Goebbels produced a film in which tragedy comes after a heroic German officer is ignored. In the fifties, both the UK and US released films with the latter being regarded as the most accurate. 1997's blockbuster 'Titanic' was at the time the most expensive film ever made if not, arguably, the best.
Both the ship and specifically its sinking have been popular themes for artists and live within a long history of maritime tragedies being immortalised in paint. The National Maritime Museum has a number of outstanding paintings of the Titanic.
The story of the Titanic immediately struck a chord with the public on both sides of the Atlantic. Over a hundred songs were written in the US within two years of the tragedy and less than a fortnight after the sinking the first song was copyrighted. Songs saluted the brave, expressed sympathy for those who lost their lives but often featured some or all of the following themes…
An affront to God
In the sincere and often rather literal religious beliefs of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, naming a ship after a race of heathen gods was bad enough but having the audacity to claim that it was unsinkable was asking for divine retribution. This would be a theme taken up by balladeers and bluesmen repeatedly.
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
Blind Willie Johnson
Hubris was projected onto the captain with him supposedly racing across the Atlantic sure that he could smash through any obstacles he would meet before an act of God brought him to his doom.
Just as it forms a central part of the most recent 'Titanic' film, the issue of class differences was a frequent theme in music. The indifference of the rich to the fate of the poor was a frequent theme as well as the occasional example of the reverse. The most popular song to come out of the immediate aftermath of the tragedy has these lines:
When that ship left England it was making for the shore,
The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor,
So they put the poor below,
They were the first to go.
'The Great Titanic' (1915)
On the other hand, millionaire captain of industry John Jacob Astor was celebrated for his sacrifice:
There was John Jacob Astor,
What a brave man was he
When he tried to save all female sex,
The young and all, great and small,
Then got drowned in the sea
'The Titanic is Doomed and Sinking'
It was widely believed that the Titanic was a 'whites only' ship. None of the crew and quite possibly none of the passengers were black (although an account of a Haitian man boarding at Cherbourg came to light much later). Popular legend also had it that black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was refused a passage with the captain allegedly responding, “we ain't hauling coal.” The tale was popularised by bluesman Leadbelly in his 'Titanic' song which ends with the lines:
Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.
Cryin', 'Fare thee Titanic, fare thee well!
'Titanic' Huddie Ledbetter
With race relations in the United States at a historic low not seen since slavery, tales of racist whites being undone by their own vanity were popular in song and popular verse.
Courage and villainy
While in many popular songs, Captain Smith plays the villain as he races without heed across the ocean in other accounts (particularly those which belonged to the powerful American news proprietor William Randolph Hearst), it is J Bruce Ismay, the president of the company that built the Titanic who is cast as the villain. His villainy as plain to see as the fact that he survived the tragedy. Hearst was in fact settling a score while Ismay was exonerated in a British inquiry, which noted how he'd helped others before boarding the last boat. Hearst's account has triumphed in the popular imagination through the movies.
The worst loss of life ever
The unprecedented nature of the tragedy certainly ensured it was global news. Within two years though, the world would be at war and the tragedy would be far from uppermost in people's minds. Somehow it has retained its status as if not the worst loss of life at sea, at least the worst loss in peacetime but it is neither. The greatest maritime disaster in peacetime happened in December 1987, when the Philippine inter-island ferry Doa Paz collided with the Vector, a small coastal petrol tanker. 4386 people lost their lives, over 1000 of them were children.