This 45-verse depiction of the Titanic disaster is the title track of Bob Dylan's thirty-fifth album. It was inspired by the Carter Family's folk song, "The Great Titanic." "I was just fooling with that one night," Dylan told Rolling Stone. "I liked that melody - I liked it a lot. 'Maybe I'm gonna appropriate this melody.' But where would I go with it?"
Dylan made it clear that we should not read too much into the song, adding: "I'm just interested in showing you what happened, on the level that it happened on. That's all. The meaning of it is beyond me."
Though based on the tragic events, not all the song is grounded in fact. There is a fictional character Jim Dandy, for instance, who unable to swim hands over a chance at survival to a crippled child. We also hear of exaggerated carnage on the ship's decks. ("Brother rose up against brother. They fought and slaughtered each other."). "People are going to say, 'Well, it's not very truthful,' said Dylan to Rolling Stone. "But a songwriter doesn't care about what's truthful. What he cares about is what should've happened, what could've happened. That's its own kind of truth. It's like people who read Shakespeare plays, but they never see a Shakespeare play. I think they just use his name."
The album's title initially spurred rumors that it would be Dylan's final album, based on its similarity to the title of Shakespeare's final play. Dylan later dismissed the suggestions. "Shakespeare's last play was called The Tempest. It wasn't called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It's two different titles," he told Rolling Stone.
The song pays tribute to James Cameron's hit 1997 film version by referencing Kate Winslet's character, Rose, in the opening verse: ("The pale moon rose in its glory. Out on the western town. She told a sad, sad story. Of the great ship that went down."). Dylan later namechecks actor Leo DiCaprio, who portrayed Roses's love interest, Jack Dawson. Regarding the latter, Dylan commented to Rolling Stone. "Yeah, Leo. I don't think the song would be the same without him."
Dylan previously touched on the song's subject matter in a line on "Desolation Row" when he sung, "The Titanic sails at dawn."
It could be that the citing of DiCaprio's character in Titanic is a case of returning James Cameron's compliment, as Jack Dawson twice quotes Dylan songs in the movie. At one point he states "I'm just a tumbleweed blowin' in the wind and elsewhere Dawson virtually quotes a line from "Like a Rolling Stone" when he says, "when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."
Was Dylan, who of course was born Robert Zimmerman, aware that one of the doomed passengers on board the Titanic was one Leo Zimmerman? The 29-year-old Farmer from Todtmoos, Germany, boarded the liner at Southampton as a third class passenger and died in the sinking.