My sources suggest that the forthcoming Bob Dylan album may well include a song about the Titanic: a song that is about 14 minutes long. I know no more - and I can't really know" even that much. But if it turns out to be true, it's surely a very rare example of his releasing something to tie in so handily with the centenary of a famous event.

Not that it would be Dylan's first allusion to this maritime disaster. As I wrote in Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan, he first mentions the Titanic in Desolation Row':

The most striking evocation of impending catastrophe [in the song is] achieved very simply - in the one arresting line The Titanic sails at dawn'. That summarises concisely the tone and colouring of the whole song."

Then there is Dylan's evocation of this same sense of foreboding in a rather later song. Quoting again from Song & Dance Man III:

In 1981’s Caribbean Wind’ (issued on Biograph, 1985)...the Street band playing Nearer My God To Thee’' is not only an allusion to the meaning-loaded event of the sinking of the Titanic... but to the group of blues songs that arose to express it decades before Dylan first uses its symbolic clout himself in 1965’s Desolation Row’: a group of songs which includes Hi Henry Brown’s Titanic Blues’: Titanic sinking in the deep blue sea / And the band all playing Nearer My God To Thee’.' "

The footnote attached to that paragraph includes this: The clutch of such songs reflected African-American delight at the sinking of the Titanic, because it signified whitey’s come-uppance, pride coming before a fall and so on. This feeling, however, was not restricted to black Americans. The Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok wrote: The sinking of the Titanic has made me indescribably happy; there is, after all, an ocean.' "

Hi Henry recorded his song 20 years after the sinking of the ship. I'm interested to know, 80 years further on, whether Bob's forthcoming Titanic track (if it exists, and if it is forthcoming) will draw upon any of these old blues songs, perhaps interweaving some of their lines of blues lyric poetry into his own 2012 text.


  1. I suggest giving a listen to the seven songs about the Titanic on the great set People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938. http://​www.tompkinssquare.com/​people-take-warning.html

  2. Hi Michael

    fascinating post. On the issue of African American responses, I was reminded of Marcus Garvey's Black Star Shipping line ( Titanic was owned by the White Star line ).
    I can't think Dylan is protesting anything, but if he has a mind to he might want to look at the plight of the Angola 3,
    2 of whom have been in solitary for 40 years.

    Sorry to sully any aplolitical Dylan fans with something topical!

  3. Anonymous22 May, 2012

    You forgot Black Diamond Bay--a kind of Island version of the Titanic . . .

  4. I'd like to hear this song, if it exists, and if Bob treats the Titanic tale the way I think it should be, as an almost extra-Biblical story of man tempting God and being punished.

    A Tower of Babel for the 20th century. There's a huge mythic and moral element to this ships sinking which is ripe for the great songwriter's voice.

    And 14 minutes long? When did he ever write a song so long that was a dud?

  5. Not just black musicians and Russian symbolists celebrating the demise of the Titanic. My wife Margaret, educated by Dominican nuns in Dublin, was told at school that the Protestant shipyard workers at Harland & Wolff "cursed the Pope with every rivet they drove into the hull". Some sense of divine retribution there!

  6. Pretty distasteful, revelling in the deaths of 1,500 people, and would be even if most of the victims hadn't been poor people on the lower decks.

  7. You know what has made tons of people indescribably happy? The death of Russian symbolist poetry. A good post revealing that art and its followers can be as cheap, vulgar, and, frankly, evil as the rest of us.

  8. "You know what has made tons of people indescribably happy? The death of Russian symbolist poetry."

    That's one of the best, and the funniest, blog comment I've ever received. Sharp & snarky: admirable.

  9. "The Titanic sails at dawn" is a great line, but not good history. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080206191254AA20vIt At none of its ports did the Titanic sail at dawn.

  10. Rambling Gambling Gordon22 May, 2012

    Hope he steals something from Thomas Hardy’s poem on the Titanic, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’.

    If you don’t know it, here it is:


    Serendipity indeed. I’ve just realised that if you repeat the first two lines of each verse before reading out the third, you’ve got yourself a blues structure.
    Try it on your guitar. Key of G, nice and simple. Sing to the tune of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’:

    (G) In a solitude of the sea
    (C) Deep from human vanit- (G) -y,
    In a (C) solitude of the sea
    Deep from human vanit- (G) -y,
    And the (D) Pride of Life that planned her, (C) stilly couches (G) she.

    ‘Thomas Hardy and the Poetry of the Blues’ – any takers?

  11. Anonymous23 May, 2012

    Are your sources (plural) usually reliable Michael?


    Judas Priest

  12. Well yes, they're usually reliable (or I wouldn't have mentioned it at all) and certainly they would only offer something in good faith, but I did write “I can't really ‘know’” - and also festooned it about with “if it turns out to be true”. And I deliberately used the word “rumour” in the title of the post.

  13. Gordon, thank you for the pointer to Thomas Hardy's blues!

  14. Anonymous25 May, 2012

    If it is true, the length alone would suggest a welcome departure from the 12 bar blues model employed in the studio for most of the last decade. I'm also hoping the song won't literally and exclusively be about The Titanic but will use it as a springboard to explore broader themes. In other words, let's hope it would be more than a history lesson.

    Judas Priest

  15. Isis are confirming that the rumour is a viable rumour, and they say there's going to be 9' song on there too.

    I wonder...could Bob have caught fire again? We'll know soon enough. Either that, or Robert Hunter's imtative powers have stretched...

  16. Thank you for letting me know, Kieran. Of course it's still just a rumour...

    (Lawdy, let's hope Robert Hunter isn't involved in any way.)

  17. Anonymous27 May, 2012

    My increasing feeling as more snippets emerge concerning the pending album is that Bob is aiming for a big statement with this release. Whether he achieves that is entirely another matter but the evidence relating to his intent is gradually mounting up...

    1. The decision to record in January when he should be rested and not straight after touring periods (a la TTL and CITH)

    2. The apparent length of the sessions

    3. The rumour that he has Scott Litt on board as either an engineer or producer

    4. The apparent length of the album-68 minutes

    5. The return to Highlands like territory in terms the length of one of the tracks (and apparently there is also a 9 min track in there too).

    None of the above guarantees anything but the feeling remains that a considerable amount of care has gone into this one.

    Fingers crossed...

    Judas Priest

  18. You make a good case. Hope you're right.

  19. The Titanic seems like a perfect metaphor. Patrick Ford

  20. Rambling Gambling Gordon30 May, 2012

    Just watched the clip of the awards ceremony at the White House. Another splendid display of Stan Laurelisms.

  21. Anonymous12 June, 2012

    Any more rumours at all Michael? Nothing new has surfaced recently. Itching for more detail...

    Judas Priest

  22. While I too share your hope Mr. Hunter is not involved - Dylan is best when on his own and inspired - Hunter is no slouch when it comes to lyrical content. He has far more truly classic compositions under his belt than the vast, vast majority of songwriters. Just a gander at a one year period - Workingman's Dead and American Beauty - proves that. And frankly, TTL has been growing on me ever since it came out.