God Moves On The Water: This Is Not DiCaprio’s Titanic

Slide guitar master Blind Willie Johnson isn’t properly a blues artist but nonetheless his music tends to be catalogued with the great blues artists of the first half of the twentieth century. With his gruff voice – elsewhere cleverly described as “leonine” (lion-like) – he is offputting to some, but he did a few things that were remarkable. One is Dark Was the Night, a haunting and ethereal depiction of Christ’s death without need of lyrics. Another was his recording God Moves On The Water which is about the sinking of the Titanic.

Ah, Lord, ah, Lord
Year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day
Great Titanic struck an iceberg, people had to run and pray
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray

… Captain Smith gave orders, women and children first
Many of the lifeboats piled right up, many were liable to crush
God moves on, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray.

In today’s faith-based descriptions of calamities God only “moves” for survivors, especially when there are remarkable accounts of their rescues. Clearly, though, God’s moving is different here. God moves with  the prerogative to bring both judgment and salvation. So, instead of being a metaphysical fluke, the sinking of the Titanic came from the hand of God, who is not the author of flukes. So it it’s not pointless:

So many had to leave their happy home, all that they possess
Lord Jesus, will you hear us now, help us in our distress

The idea is that God uses calamity to bring otherwise comfortable souls to himself; it’s better to be saved in hardship than damned in luxury.  So God moving is not unlike the biblical idea of “the day of the Lord,” described by one commentator as “a day of judgment and wrath for some but of blessing and salvation for others.” (A. Hoekema).

The song goes on to elaborate on why there might be judgment, and does so with a suspicious view of technological progress:

A.G. Smith, mighty man, built a boat that he couldn’t understand
Named it a name of God in a tin, without i-c, Lord, he pulled it in
God moves…

From the perspective of a simple believer, the Titanic seemed arrogant. Named after Greek gods, thought to be nearly invulnerable, large and lavish, it was a symbol of human progress and, to some, a symbol of human arrogance. Like the Tower of Babel, it was seen as a symbol of human independence, providing a false sense of insulation from the will of God. And, like the Tower of Babel, God would have none of it. This idea seems quaint to a generation holding a computer (smart phone) in one hand and a steering wheel in the other, but you might empathize a little with this view of the Titanic if you have doubts about what’s happening on the cutting edge of genetic engineering.

You may find the song’s theological interpretation of the sinking to be presumptuous and its view of technology to be ignorant. But, whether or not you like the nuances of the message, you should like Johnson’s work on the slide guitar. Last time I checked it was better than DiCaprio’s.


Filed under Blues

6 responses to “God Moves On The Water: This Is Not DiCaprio’s Titanic

  1. MM, I wrote a fairly long post with a quote from the new Dylan biography which got lost when I tried to post the comment. I got sent to a link which made me login and then when I went back to your site the post was gone. Can it be fetched or should I try to write it again and repost?

  2. The quote was about American culture back in the early 60’s and Dylans aquintance with a lot of the Delta Blues performers that you talk a lot about on this site. I thought you might be interested in it and, from what I know about you and your interests, you might enjoy reading the book. The title of the book is “Who is that Man?” In search of the real Bob Dylan, by David Dalton. It was published by Hyperion books, Harper Collins in June of this year.

    • The “blues” part of Presbyterian Blues has been sparse for a while, but the 60’s blues revival might be a good future topic. I would like to see the Dylan quote. I know he liked Charley Patton and he sang a song about Willie McTell. Then Eric Clapton was obsessed with Robert Johnson for a while, and some others from the British invasion (such as the Rolling Stones, I believe) were also influenced by the blues. Then the blues guys that managed to live into the sixties were suddenly hot and made a little cash. Albert King, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny & Brownie were in that group.

  3. Here is the quote MM:

    “Life in the leafy streets of suburbia (in the early 60’s-my addition) was so bland and homogenized that, by design, not a trace of the demonic menaces of medieval Europe and Celtic superstition remained….we were as far from the concept of doom as could possibly be imagined. Even sin with its spine-rattling threat of divine retribution has been denied them through the therapuetic eye of psychology. The culture was so sanitized that evil, once a spiritual threat to salvation, was now considered no more than a psychiatric condition. Of course, once the apocalypse had been surgically removed, the military-industrial complex had to find another way to instill fear in the populace….They contrived to create a federally funded doomsday: the bomb.

    If the bomb was their big panic button, plastic was their proudest product. With plastic you could eliminate all other elements in the periodic table….It became symbolic of the homogenizing of American culture, and seen through the eyes of idealistic youth it looked like a fiendish invention. Certain ungrateful and college-educated sectors of the youth began to look down on the prosperous, safe and tidy industrial utopia their parents had created and seek out what was authentic in American culture- which happened to be that of the poorest, most backward and uneducated people in the USA: itinerant Delta blues singers and redneck mountain folk. There was one place you could find all these people singing their weird old songs. Harry Smith had conveniently stored this treasure trove in his 1952 six-LP collection, THE ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC. If there was a wisp of irony in the fact that the mystic voices of Dock Boggs and Son House were transmitted to them through vinyl, a derivative of plastic, no one noticed.”

    Dylan did leave the leafy streets of suburbia (his father had been an executive at Standard Oil Company who came down with a serious illness and moved the family to Hibbing, Minnesota), rejected his upbringing and went in search of a different life among delta blues singers and those he met at Greenwich village in New York. And his life has been an interesting one indeed.

    • Good quote. Seems like a plausible explanation.

      I just started the video. How old is Dylan there, 19? My daughter passed by and said “Dad, that’s like the hair you used to have.”

      I downloaded a blues album that was Martin Scorcese’s pick of Son House songs. I’m going to have to follow the Scorcese bread crumbs to look deeper into how/why that came about.

  4. Here is a documentary about Dylan by Martin Scorsese which I found to be well worth viewing:

    Some more of the Delta blues singers he came in contact with are mentioned in the documentary.

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