“When that great ship went down”: A Titanic Playlist, Part 1

Detail from New York Yiddish Paper, April 16, 1912. The musicians are depicted as playing "Nearer, my God, to thee." (public domain collection of the New York Public LIbrary)

Detail from New York Yiddish paper Der Groyser Kundes, April 16, 1912. The musicians are depicted as playing “Nearer, my God, to thee.” (public domain collection of the New York Public LIbrary)

“The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard them first while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, they were still on deck playing ‘Autumn.’ How they ever did it I cannot imagine.”

Harold Bride, Marconi Company junior radio operator on the RMS Titanic
Read more of Bride’s account here.

“No Subject for the Inexperienced”

The sinking of the RMS Titanic was the 20th century’s most musical disaster. I mean this less because of the musical heroism of the eight musicians Harold Bride describes above, and more because of what came after. The musicians’ service in the face of the impending disaster, though, is compelling in its own way. The musicians started playing music in order to help keep people calm as they boarded the lifeboats. They continued playing when there were no more lifeboats to board. The anecdote is quite telling about the capacity of music to guide and sustain the spirit. It is one moment of heroism and tragedy, among many that emerged that night. Those particular moments and the story as a whole provided abundant inspiration to poets and songwriters.

In Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, historian Steven Biel notes that publishing companies released more than 100 Titanic songs in 1912 and 1913. This was an age of sheet music and parlor singing. The popularity (for want of a better term) of the disaster drove that market. It also inspired myriad poets and songwriters. In a companion volume, Titanica: The Disaster of the Century in Poetry, Song, and Prose, Biel writes:

“Twice in the two weeks following the sinking of the Titanic, the New York Times warned against amateurs trying to write poems about the disaster. ‘No Subject for the Inexperienced,’ an editorial advised three days after the wreck. Twelve days later, with the new verses still coming in at a rate of dozens a day (down from hundreds in the first grief-stricken week), the Times felt compelled ‘to say again that to write about the Titanic a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one.’ Most of the poems it had received were ‘worthless’ and ‘intolerably bad’; the worst of all, the editors snobbishly complained, were written on lined paper.”

It would seem that well before the age of Twitter and Facebook (let alone blogs…), the editors of the Times did some public service by filtering these public, literary outpourings of grief. We’ll attempt to do the same with our selection of songs today.

Disaster and Tragedy

Sheet music cover (source: New York Public Library Digital Public Domain Collection)

Sheet music cover (source: New York Public Library Digital Public Domain Collection)

Murder Ballad Monday started from a conversation about the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Although far more catastrophic, that disaster never became tragedy the way the Titanic did less than six years earlier. The reasons behind this discrepancy vary from the obvious to the subtle. In today’s post, we’re going to explore some small portion of the musical production surrounding the Titanic. We’ll hear how the musical depictions of the disaster spoke to themes of the day.

One reason for the Titanic’s prominence is implicit in Bride’s story about the musicians playing to calm the passengers. The Titanic was a slow-moving disaster, with enough time and enough survivors for particular human stories to enter popular imagination. Hubris often leads the lists for what makes this tragedy compelling, as it does with many tragedies. The cruise liner was touted as unsinkable, but sink it did. It took with it many aspiring immigrants to America, but also some of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful people.

Over the course of a few hours, the disaster provided opportunities for heroism and self-sacrifice. Duty and honor contended with natural impulses of survival. A ship that was to be a “floating hotel,” outfitted with luxuries and the most modern features of the day delivered its guests into 28° F sea water at the bidding of a floating piece of ice. 1912’s cutting edge technology confronted cutting edges of nature, and lost.

The tragedy tapped into several controversies and political causes of the day. Biel explains that the “women and children first” ethos of First Cabin passengers took symbolic root in the public mind. Some used it to rebut the case for women’s suffrage and other feminist aspirations. Similarly, the stories emerging from the different fates of various passenger classes, from First Cabin through Steerage, provided fodder for narratives ranging from Anglo-Saxon supremacy to the rights of labor. Partisans on both sides of those fights could find material to press their cases.

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“When that great ship went down”: A Titanic Playlist, Part 1 — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Time, Truth, and Tempest: A Titanic Playlist, Part 2 - Sing Out!

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