So You Want to Write a Shipwreck Song

by Summer Block Kumar

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I collect songs about shipwrecks and other maritime disasters, including mutinies, desertions, ghost ships, naval battles, pirate attacks, and as in one prototypical Decemberists song, murdering your nemesis after being swallowed by a whale. So far, I’ve compiled a list of more than fifty songs (with many variations on each). The best shipwreck songs contain some universal elements, which you would do well to include in your own maritime disaster tune.

1. Select a maritime disaster. The most popular era for singable shipwrecks is 1830–1910. The most recent wreck on my list is the Captain Torres, which went down in 1989. James Keelaghan’s song of the same name is tremendous, yet the fact that the grieving families are still alive today compromises the guiltless thrill of romanticizing the distant dead.

2. Your song should be named “The Wreck of” followed by the name of the ship. Don’t get creative.

3. Take the name of the place the ship is heading, then add the suffix -town. The Bay Rupert was on course for Melbourne-town; in “The Wreck of the Caspian,” Boston-town. In “The Wreck of the Ellan Vannin,” one of the very greatest disaster songs, “Her hold was full and battened down/As she sailed towards far Liverpool-town.”

4. But aren’t you really going — to hell? In “The Wreck of the C.P. Yorke,” “though ’twas the mate stood watch at her wheel/’Twas the devil that guided her way.” In “Whaler’s Cove,” an otherworldly whale conspires “to send us whalers straight to hell.” In “The Wreck of the Ellan Vannin,” the line “this little ship was bound for hell” is absolutely thrilling, and Richard Hawley really nails it on the delivery, too.

5. What is the ship’s mission? Be very specific here. The Edmund Fitzgerald was “coming back from some mill in Wisconsin” and “concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms/When they left fully loaded for Cleveland” — “with a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more/than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.” The Ellan Vannin was delivering the mail. Other doomed ships were carrying cargo, exploring the poles, or ferrying emigrants. But the absolute best reason to go a-sea is to hunt whales, because now your song has whales in it.

6. A single misstep leads to tragedy. In “The Wreck of the Brother Jonathan,” the ship was overloaded. On the C.P. Yorke, “the mate was alert/for sight of the marker ahead/But he cut ‘er too short coming out of the Pass/And grounded on Tattenham Ledge.” “The skipper he was reading Climax,” a pornographic magazine, when he “missed the channel in the dark” and sank The Green Cove.

Other times, the captain ignores fair warning. In “The Wreck Of The Isidore,” a sailor named Thomas King said “’Captain, hear my tale/I have had a terrible dream, I fear that we should not sail.’” He continues, “In my dream our ship was wrecked, and all aboard were lost/Then another sailor he spoke up loud said I too have had such a dream/Of seven coffins on the shore, my own dead face I have seen.”

7. The cook cannot be lucky. He may predict disaster, as in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” or struggle to accept it, as in “The Mermaid.” In “The John B. Sails” (recorded by The Beach Boys as “Sloop John B”), he goes mad. “The poor cook he caught the fits/and threw away all my grits/and then he took and he ate up all of my corn,” which is excellent, even if the chorus (“this is the worst trip/I’ve ever been on”) sounds like a bad Expedia review of a Carnival cruise. “Our cook in the fore-rigging froze by the fiercest wind that blew,” the first fatality in “The Loss of the Antelope.” Six months after the wreck of the Maggie Hunter, “the cook was found floating near the shore . . . A hatch, a boom, a broken spar, the drowned woman’s pale dead face,/of that stout craft and gallant crew remained the only trace.”

8. Include a lot of technical detail about the wreck. The best shipwreck songs could double as formal incident reports. At minimum, every shipwreck song must mention the exact date of the wreck, as well as the time of day, a rough time line of the incident, and the number of men and women who died. The men and women must all be referred to as “souls.”

In “When the Willie Went Down,” “The pilot stood upon the bridge,/but how was he to know,/the Sinclair tug that crossed her bow held a barge in tow, and the cable cut the Willie, and it opened up the hull, on the night when the Willie went down.”

Here you can remind your land-bound listeners just how long it takes to die at sea. In “The Wreck of the Mary Somers,” “the Somers meets with a heavy gale/and springs a leak under close-reefed sail/with her bowsprit gone and her rudder too.” For six days her crew tried to pump the water out, but “On the seventh morn, our pumps did sound,/nine feet of water in the hold was found.”

9. One way to inject pathos is by suggesting the ship was just a few miles from safety when the disaster struck. This is the nautical version of the cop on his last day before retirement. “Less than a mile from the Bar lightship/by a mighty wave Ellan Vannin was hit.” In “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay/If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.” On the Powhatan, the passengers could see the lights on the shore. “Isaac Lewis” is about a young man who sailed the world only to die ten yards from the shores of his home and in view of his beloved father: “And I drowned where as a child I’d fished on the rocks of northern Wales/And in three days’ time I washed upon the whitened sandy shore/100 yards from Moelfre, my father’s wide oak door.” The coast guard was close enough to let the dying men on the Captain Torres place goodbye calls to their families, but not close enough to save them.

10. Use the phrase “watery grave.” If not now, when?

11. You can include a moral, but don’t be a dick about it. The worst maritime disaster songs are the ones about the Titanic, because they are both boring and smug. In Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water,” he incorrectly names the Titanic’s builder as A. G. Smith, singing, “A.G. Smith, mighty man, built a boat that he couldn’t understand,” which seems neither fair nor accurate for someone who did build a giant damn boat, after all. “Old Canoe” asserts, “This great ship was built by man, that is why she could not stand;/’She could not sink’ was the cry from one and all./But an iceberg ripped her side and it cut down all her pride; They found the hand of God was in it all,” which is a hell of a thing to say.

12. The best morals are populist ones. Less preachy than most of its kind, “When that Great Ship Went Down” adds a line about the mistreatment of the poorest among the Titanic. Other songs intimate that the cargo they were carrying was not worth dying for, like the coconuts, spices, perfume, and silk dresses carried by the ill-fated Anna Marie. “The Wreck of the Lucy Walker” concerns itself with a wealthy, prideful captain and his crew of consigned slaves. “Now the boilerman named Jim/knew exactly how much steam/that it took to keep Lucy running smooth.” The captain insists they go faster to impress his fellow steamboat tycoons. When Jim refuses, the captain pulls a gun on him. Jim leaps off the boat, saving himself, before a boiler explosion sinks the ship: “With all those dollar bills, Rich Joe couldn’t escape the mighty river’s jaw.”

13. But sometimes, there’s nothing to blame but the the endless, indifferent sea. The “Isaac Lewis” declares, “Man has tamed and shaped the land, he’ll never tame the sea.” For “The Wreck of the Julie Plante,” the lesson is, “You can’t get drowned on Lake St. Claire so long as you stay on shore.”

14. Add a little mystery. “They might have split up or they might have capsized/They may have broke deep and took water,” sings Gordon Lightfoot. In “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” the narrator says, “In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow/The fate of Franklin no man may know/The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell/Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell.” In “The Schooner Persian’s Crew,” “In mystery their dooms are sealed; they did collide, some say,/And that is all that will be revealed until the judgment day.”

15. Don’t try to be funny. While there are a few notable shipwreck songs with humorous elements, including “The Wreck of the Athens Queen” and the parody song “The Wreck of the Mary Jane,” a true folk disaster song should be delivered in utmost sincerity and sobriety. The sea is not the place for sarcasm, my friends. It’s a shipwreck, show some respect.

16. Bitter irony is acceptable, however.

In “Captain Torres,” the narrator, a sailor’s wife, muses: “How strange this world of wonder:/ships sailing, planes flying,/sound sent at speed of light/phone calls from young men dying.” In “The Wreck of the Bay Rupert,” they set off with a load of goods including “a dozen score of Bibles.” She goes down on a Sunday morning, “And the town was all at prayer,/but no missionary minister or the word of God,/Could have kept them there.” Eventually the “Eskimos” [sic] salvage anything of value, saying “to hell with all them Bibles.”

17. The best shipwreck — the best folk songs in general — conclude with the protagonist explaining that though he may die, his spirit will live on, as long as he is remembered/avenged. I include “The Highwayman” on my maritime playlist even though only one of its verses concerns the sea, because in only seven lines, Kris Kristofferson hits upon nearly every key element of a good maritime disaster song, concluding triumphantly, “when the yards broke off they said that I got killed/But I am living still.”

18. Though it contains no maritime tragedy, I would be remiss not to mention “Willie Taylor,” the keystone entry of my forthcoming play list Songs of Maritime Triumph. Briefly: a young woman and her lover are engaged, but before they can be married he is pressed into service and shipped off to sea. She disguises herself as a sailor (by lightly dabbing her fingertips with tar) and goes to find him, when a single button accidentally pops off her jacket, baring her breasts to all assembled. Unfazed, she asks to see her man. The captain informs her, “If you’ll get up tomorrow morning/Early as the break of day/There you’ll spy your Willie Taylor/Walking along with a lady gay.” She follows his advice, returns the next morning, sees Willie with his new bride, and immediately shoots him dead. Impressed by her decisiveness, the captain proclaims her the new ship’s commander.

Everything about this song is perfect.