Friday, 8 July 2011

Shine and The Titanic

"I was standin' in the window one day," he announced, "when de captain and de mate had a few words, when dat great Titanic struck, sah," he slapped down the ace, "dat cold iceberg. Say back up, Shine, and take another blow, Lunar Caustic

I have to say that Battle’s song about the Titanic is a bonafide piece of American folk lore that is my own discovery taken down right in the mouth of the inferno so we don't have to be beholden to a music company or any anthology of folk songs for it. Though it may exist in another form, if so I’d be interested to find out how it differs. Letter to Robert Giroux 17 January 1952

Lowry's novella Lunar Caustic was based on his time in Bellevue Hospital, New York, at 1st Avenue and 27th Street in Manhattan. At the instigation of his friend, Eric Estorick, Lowry was admitted as a voluntary patient in May or June of 1936 for psychiatric observation (rather than treatment), consequent on delirium tremens; he was there for perhaps ten days.

What Lowry has stumbled upon in hearing Battle's song about the Titanic in Bellvue was a long oral tradition in Black American around the sinking of the Titanic.

The best resource on Shine and the Titanic that I have found is Marilyn Nance's webite

A useful starting point to understand this oral tradition can be found in The Toast of the Titanic Oral Tradition Carries On Legend of Lone African American By Dana Hull, Washington Post, December 20, 1997

Titanic hoopla is upon us: the documentary, the musical, now the movie. Yet buried deep in the mythology of the doomed voyage is the story of Shine, a fictional character who lives on through the folk traditions of the African American community. Legend has it that the only black man on board the Titanic was a laborer called Shine -- "shine" being a derogatory term for blacks. Because he worked below deck, Shine was the first to realize that the Titanic was sinking, and thus was able to escape while more than 1,500 passengers perished in the April 14, 1912, disaster. Most stories about Shine take place in the form of "toasts," an improvisational oral narrative popular in black communities from the 1920s to the early 1960s. A form of street poetry, toasts were usually performed in the male provinces of pool halls and street corners, and were passed on from friend to friend. Often as profane as they were misogynistic, the raplike verses reveal a different perspective of the event that currently is being celebrated in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The Shine toast revels in sharing a smug satisfaction that the Titanic -- a symbol of white European arrogance and affluence -- sank on its maiden voyage. The irony that African Americans were not allowed to make the crossing -- thus sparing their lives -- inspired a wealth of jokes, toasts and ballads. Numerous verses of the various Shine toasts, particularly those that refer to the female anatomy, are not suitable for a family newspaper. But the rhyming verses, which could last for up to 10 minutes, go something like this: Up stepped a black man from the deck below that they called Shine. Hollerin, "Captain! Captain! Don't you know? There's forty feet of water on the boiler room flo'." The captain said, "Go back, you dirty black! We got a thousand pumps to keep this water back." Because Shine exists solely in the oral tradition, verses would vary from teller to teller.

Roger Abrahams, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the few folklorists to record them. "Most versions of the Titanic fit into the same general pattern," he wrote in his 1963 book "Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore From the Streets of Philadelphia." There's a "prologue about the terrible day on which the ship sank; the introduction of Shine, the mythical Negro stoker on board the ship; a description of his argument with the captain about whether the ship was sinking; his jumping into the water and his amazing swimming ability described; the captain's offer of money to save him, which he refuses; the offer of the captain's wife and/or daughter of sexual relations with him, which he likewise refuses; a conversation with the shark and/or whale where he claims to be able to out-swim them (which he apparently does); and a final ironic twist in which it is mentioned that Shine swam so fast that by the time news of the sea tragedy arrived, Shine was already inebriated in some specific location." When the news got around the world that the great Titanic had sunk, Shine was in Harlem on 125th street, damn near drunk. Or: When all them white folks went to Heaven, Shine was in Sugar Ray's Bar drinking Seagram's Seven. "Shine is the clever black," says Bruce Jackson, a professor of American culture at SUNY-Buffalo who traveled around the country recording toasts in the 1960s and '70s. "He's the only one on board smart enough to save his life, and he's the only one strong enough to physically swim to shore."

Other toasts include stories about a barroom brawl involving Stagger Lee, or tales of the Signifying Monkey, an animal fable in which a clever monkey outwits a lion. "There are a number of toasts," Jackson says of his field recordings. "But I heard the most toasts about the Titanic. It made an enormous impact on the popular imagination of the time. People knew in the black community that it was an all-white ship -- it was part of the White Star Line. When it went down, that was not lost on the community." But the sinking of the Titanic was not solely the province of toasts. Numerous musicians, from guitarist Blind Willie Johnson to the New Lost City Ramblers, recorded songs that told the Titanic tale. Some versions, recorded as "God Moves on the Water," were widely circulated in the 1920s and focused on the spiritual aspects of the accident.

The Titanic was a symbol of technological prowess, and some people saw the disaster as divine intervention. It's possible to spend hours listening to Titanic tunes in the majestically dusty archives of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies. Ask archivist Jeff Place for Titanic songs, and he'll pull out album after album: Pink Anderson's Carolina Medicine Show Hokum & Blues, Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Mance Lipscomb. Others recall singing a song about "When That Great Ship Went Down" at summer camp. The famed blues guitarist Leadbelly also recorded a Titanic song. His lyrics included the common folklore that Jack Johnson, the black man who was world heavyweight boxing champion at the time, was denied passage on the boat. Jack Johnson wanted to get on board Captain, he said, "I ain't hauling no coal" Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well. "There are a lot of songs about the Titanic, in part because the story itself is so dramatic," says Anthony Seeger, curator of the Folkways Recordings archives. "Versions of songs about the Titanic have been done with rock, gospel and blues. The clarity in which class distinctions were made on the voyage really resonated in folk culture, and by singing about it Americans were able to comment on their feelings." As Leadbelly sang it: When he heard that mighty shock, Mighta seen that man doin' the Eagle Rock Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.

There are many variations on the lyrics. Bruce Jackson in Get Your Ass in the Water [pp.189-90] details one version:

The eighth a May was a hell of a day.
I don't know, but my folks say.
The news reached the little seaport town
that the old Titanic was finally goin' down.
Say now there was a fella on board they called Shine,
he was jet black and he change anybody's mind.
Shine came up from the bottom deck below,
said, "Captain, water's runnin' all in the firebox doors,
and I believe to my soul
this big motherfucker's fixin' to overflow."
Captain says, "Shine," says, "you go back down,
I got forty horsepower to keep the water pumped down."
Shine went down and came up with a teacup in his hand,
he said, "Look here, captain, say, I'm a scared man.
I'd rather be out on that iceberg goin' around and 'round
than to be on this big motherfucker when it's goin' down."
Shine jumped overboard and he began to swim,
with ninety-nine millionaires lookin' at him.
Shine swimmed on down by the Elbow Bend,
there he met the devil and all a his friends.
Big man from Wall Street came on the second deck.
In his hand he held a book of checks.
He said, "Shine, Shine, if you save poor me,"
say, "I'll make you as rich as any black man can be."
Shine said, "You don't like my color and you down on my race,
get your ass overboard and give these sharks a chase."
Say, the captain's daughter came out on the second deck
with her drawers in her hand and brassiere around her neck.
She said, "Shine, Shine, if you save poor me,"
say, "I'll give you all this ass your eyes can see."
Shine said, "There's fish in the ocean, there's whales in the sea,
get your ass overboard and swim like me."
Now Shine was swimmin' and screamin' and yellin',
his ass was kickin' water like a motor boat propeller.
Shine was doin' ninety, he begin to choke,
fell on his back and he begin to float.
Big motherfucker from Wall Street told the sharks,
"I'm a big motherfucker from Wall Street, you got to let me be."
Sharks say, "Here in this water, your ass belongs to me."
Shark told Shine, say, "A bit of your ass be a wonderful taste."
Shine say, "Man, it sure be a motherfucken race."
Now when the news finally got around
that the old Titanic had finally gone down,
there was Shine on Main Street damn near drunk
telling everybody how the Titanic sunk.
A bitch said, "Shine," say, "daddy," say, "why didn't you drown?"
He said, "I had a cork in my ass, baby, and I couldn't go down."

Read another version on Louisiana Voices

Read other insights here:

Arbeitspapiere / Working Papers Nr. 81 by Matthias Krings: Black Titanic. African-American and African appropriations of the White Star liner

The African American Toast Tradition

Bruce Jackson: African-American 'Toast' Poems

But what might Battle's toast have sounded like? Here is a version by Dolemite aka Rudy Rae Moore which may have been near to what Lowry heard in Bellevue:

One irony that I discovered is that a black person did perish on the Titanic -
Joseph Phillippe Lemercier Laroche. But where there any black crew members?

One of the best collections into how the fate of the liner was documented by musicians can be found below:

You can listen to nearly 60 tracks on the above site.

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