Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Titanic Band

Image from the Titanic Universe.

Today, we're gonna take a little side trek away from Pittsburgh music and commemorate the most legendary gig ever performed, the closing act of Wallace Hartley's little band of musicians who played on while the Titanic sank exactly one hundred years ago.

Everyone knows the fate of the "unsinkable" luxury liner and how it met its destiny in the frigid North Atlantic. The story of the band going down with the ship is part and parcel of the Titanic's lore.

His group was a four piece orchestra. Leader Hartley was a veteran of trans-Atlantic trips, having played prior cruises on the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania. The band's job on the Titanic was to perform at church services, during tea, and after dinner.

They were also accompanied on the trip by a string and piano trio that performed in the Titanic's upscale Cafe Parisien. The guys weren't making big bucks. In fact, they were hired through an agency and likely earned little more than the equivalent of scale. They did, though, have the perk of sailing as second-class passengers and the prestige of performing during the Titanic's maiden voyage. Little did they know that it would also be her last trip.

On that fateful April 14th, 1912, they played in an effort to distract and calm the passengers during the disaster until the end. As the too-few lifeboats were being filled, Hartley gathered the musicians at the First Class Lounge around midnight, later moving to the higher and drier Boat Deck as the liner continued to settle into Davy Jones' locker. It was the first time the men had ever played as a group.

And it was purely voluntary. Hired through a third party, they were not on the ship's payroll and couldn't be ordered to play by the Titanic's captain or even the White Star's owner, who was on board (and survived). The eight had every right to jump into a lifeboat, if they could find one, like any other passenger. But they all answered Hartley's call for a final encore.

The impromptu orchestra played waltzes, ragtime, and even requests. Survivors recalled hearing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "In The Shadows" from the band as they left the boat. The musicians' apparent game plan was to play upbeat melodies in an effort to lift the spirits of the passengers.

And that they did. Many of those rescued from the Titanic vividly recalled the gallant troupe making music as they left the ship. Even those who went down drew some solace from the octet. One of the last survivors to leave the vessel said that she saw men gathered by the ship's railing, smoking cigarettes and tapping their feet to the band's music.

The doomed boat gave up the ghost a little after 2 AM and slipped under the waves, as did the members of Hartley's band.  All eight members perished. It took two weeks for searchers to find Hartley's body, still dressed in his band uniform under an overcoat, along with his music case and, according to some versions, his violin.

30,000 people turned out for his funeral and procession from Bethel Church to the graveyard. He was laid to rest as "Nearer Thy God To Thee" played at the Colne Cemetery. A ten-foot headstone, containing a carved violin at its base, marks his grave.

His band was remembered, too, by a plaque erected at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall that survived a fire which destroyed the original building and later, Luftwaffe bombs during the Battle of Britain. There are annual concerts played in their honor along with memorials and dedicated bandstands scattered as far away as Australia. More recently, Steve Turner wrote a book of their final performance called "The Band That Played On."

Not everyone in the industry was quite as moved, according to the Southpoint Visiter. The musicians were employed by the Castle Street agency of CW & FN Black, which held a monopoly on booking band members for passenger ships. The firm became infamous for billing the Titanic's band families for the past due costs of the men’s uniform alterations after their deaths. Even the infamous money-grubber Morris Levy wouldn't stoop to that level.

One last note: "Nearer Thy God To Thee" was reported by the NY papers and some survivors as the last song the band played, and it would have been an appropriate selection for the devout Methodist Hartley. He had even told friends that if he were ever in that dire circumstance, that would be the hymn he'd play.

However, a rescued radio operator swore the last tune he heard before the ship went down was "Autumn," which was a hymn or perhaps a reference to the then-popular "Songe d'Automne." We'll never know for sure, and it really doesn't matter much.

What is sure is that Wallace Hartley and mates John Woodward, Theo Brailey, Jock Hume, Roger Bricoux, Percy Taylor, Georges Krins and Fred Clarke will be remembered forever as members of the world's most storied band.

From the movie "Titanic"

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