April 15, 2012, will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the world’s largest – and supposedly the safest – passenger ship of its time. You can be sure that the centennial will trigger a landslide of books on the subject. Less certain is how many will find anything new to say.
But here is at least one – an early comer to the race – that has already succeeded on that count. The Band that Played On by Steve Turner is, surprisingly, the first book since the great ship went down to examine the lives of the eight musicians who were employed by the Titanic. What these men did – standing calmly on deck playing throughout the disaster – achieved global recognition. But their individual stories, until now, have been largely unknown. What Turner has uncovered is a narrow but unique slice of history – one more chapter of compelling Titanic lore.
Turner, a music journalist, pursued living relatives of the band members and squeezed all that he could out of “inherited photographs, documents, and anecdotes” enabling him to sketch brief but poignant portraits of eight young (or at least youngish) men, all born in an optimistic era and all members of the rising middle class. To their parents, their girlfriends, and surely to themselves as well, the future must have seemed bright right up until the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.
There were actually two separate bands working on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. One was a quintet, a “saloon orchestra.” The other was a trio, intended to serve as a “deck band.”
The eight men almost certainly never played as one group until the night the ship sank when – many believe – the quintet’s leader Wallace Hartley had the idea to bring them together to perform their fabled final gig.
Of the eight men, five were English, one was French, one Belgian, and one a Scot. Three of them had never been to sea before but most of the others were experienced ships’ musicians. (Two had even been working on board the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, the night one year earlier when that ship collided with another ocean liner but did not sink.)
Only one of the band members was married and none had children but several had girlfriends – including the young Scot, Jock Hume, described as “the liveliest, cheekiest member of the band,” who left behind a young woman pregnant with his baby. (The two had expected to marry upon his return.)
Turner paints an engaging portrait of the life of a ship’s musician. The salaries were respectable but not fabulous (£6.5 a month – “slightly higher than a police constable but less than a miner.”) But for good musicians there was plenty of work and it meant the chance to travel. Some of these musicians, Turner says, had as many friends in Boston and New York as they did in Liverpool.
There is much that we do not know about the final hours of these men. Why did they make the decision to play on the deck that night? Was it Hartley who brought them together? What was in their hearts and minds?
Even the Titanic survivors who witnessed their final performance quibbled over some details. Did the band march or did they kneel? Was their last number “Autumn” or was it “Nearer, My God, to Thee”? Did they stop playing during the final moments and pack their instruments away or were they still playing as the ship went down?
All agreed, however, that all eight band members behaved with remarkable calm and courage. Within hours of the ship’s sinking, their story was circulating and they had already become heroes.
But their grieving loved ones were not allowed to enjoy such honors in quiet for too long. There were ugly squabbles and lawsuits over money (were their families due compensation or were they instead responsible for the band members’ debts and borrowed instruments?) and there were celebrity naysayers (Joseph Conrad and George Bernard Shaw) who hypothesized that hearing music during the crisis had harmed the passengers at least as much as it had helped them.
And then there were the emotions involved. Turner follows up on parents, siblings, and girlfriends, only to discover that some never recovered from the loss of their young men. (Surprisingly, however, one of the happy stories is that of the only known surviving descendent of the band, Jock Hume’s illegitimate daughter who, after being orphaned, ended up wealthy and successful.)
For Turner, however, the undisputed hero of the book is Wallace Hartley, a fine musician with religious conviction and a powerful sense of duty who seems most likely to have been the force behind those final hours of heroism. In the last pages of the book, Turner reveals a surprising Hartley discovery – a turn of events which makes a fine ending for his worthy book, even as it leaves us hopeful that the Titanic may yet have a few mysteries she is willing to give up.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.