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The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic

The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic

4.0 51
by Steve Turner

“They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence. The band was playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.” —CHARLOTTE COLLYER, TITANIC SURVIVOR

The movies, the documentaries, the museum exhibits. They often tell the same story about the


“They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence. The band was playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.” —CHARLOTTE COLLYER, TITANIC SURVIVOR

The movies, the documentaries, the museum exhibits. They often tell the same story about the “unsinkable” Titanic, her wealthy passengers, the families torn apart, and the unthinkable end. But never before has “that glorious band”—the group of eight musicians who played on as the Titanic slipped deeper and deeper into the Atlantic Ocean—been explored in such depth. Steve Turner’s extensive research reveals a fascinating story including dishonest agents, a clairvoyant, social climbers, and a fraudulent violin maker. Read what brought the band members together and how their music served as the haunting soundtrack for one of modern history’s most tragic maritime disasters.


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 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? 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…

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, Book Editor, Christian Science Monitor

Editorial Reviews

Matthew Algeo
Turner's exhaustive research unearthed many…seemingly mundane details that resonate as powerfully as the sinking of the great ship itself. The Titanic's band has been immortalized in films such as James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, "Titanic"…But Turner has done the band an even greater service. He has made them human.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal
The story of the ship's band playing cheerful music to calm passengers as the Titanic sank seized the public's imagination from the earliest reports, and the musicians became instant legends, lauded for their bravery. They were hired through an agency and were technically second-class passengers, not employees of the shipping line, despite their shipboard duties. All eight men died, and survivors claimed that they heard music playing until the very end. The historical record on their personal lives is thin, but Turner (An Illustrated History of Gospel) clearly did extensive research and presents plausible scenarios when required to speculate. He offers a picture of the lives of these particular musicians, along with much information on the work of professional musicians generally in the early 20th century. He even takes on the 99-year-old debate about the last song played. Especially poignant are the stories about the surviving dependants of the band members and their difficulties with legal claims and retrieving personal effects. VERDICT Titanic completists will certainly want this book, which should also appeal to those interested in the perspective on music history.—Megan Hahn Fraser, Univ. of California-Los Angeles Lib.

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Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

The Band that Played On

The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic

By Steve Turner

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2011 Steve Turner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59555-387-4


"That Glorious Band."

On the night of April 18, 1912, a dimly lit low-slung steamer with a single black funnel graciously eased its way up the lower reaches of the Hudson River headed toward Cunard's Pier 54. Never before had the arrival of one ship been the focus of so much anticipation and speculation. New York's traffic was gridlocked, police barriers had been erected around the west end of 12th Street, and the eyes of the world were focused on a gangway that would soon connect lower Manhattan with the British steamer Carpathia.

More than fifty tugboats manned by journalists had been nipping at the vessel as she made her approach, hoping to be rewarded with shouted-out answers to questions or handwritten scraps of information that would put them one step ahead of their competitors in the scramble for headlines. Reporters with megaphones made offers of $50 or $100 for firsthand reports, while photographers lit up the side of the ship with their flashes of magnesium powder. Some of them even tried to invade it when a rope ladder was let down for the river pilot to climb on, and they had to be forced back by Second Officer James Bisset.

The object of all the attention was not the ship's prebooked passengers who'd set out for the Mediterranean exactly a week before, but the more than 706 survivors of the world's worst shipwreck who'd been hauled on board from the freezing Atlantic. The Titanic had gone down almost four days previously, and the story of its loss had dominated the front pages of newspapers around the world. But beyond knowing that it had collided with an iceberg, and that the majority of the crew and passengers had died, very few hard facts had reached the shore. An early report had suggested that all were safe, and a wrongly attributed wireless message gave the impression that the damaged Titanic was being towed slowly back to port.

Speculation had developed that a cover-up was being mounted, that the meager output from the Carpathia's wireless room—a provisional list of survivors—and the refusal to answer press inquiries was a stalling tactic to give the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, himself a Titanic survivor, time to concoct an official explanation that would absolve him and his company of negligence charges. An intercepted wireless message from the Carpathia indicated that Ismay wanted the Carpathia to let its passengers off farther downriver to avoid the press.

The public naturally wanted to know how this apparently invincible liner had come to grief on what should have been a routine Atlantic crossing, but for most of the curious the explanation would have little or no immediate impact on their lives. For the friends and families of Titanic passengers, the need to know was vital to their peace of mind. Many of them gathered in the shed at the entrance to Pier 54 uncertain as to whether they would see their loved ones emerge. For newspapers, getting an accurate record of this event was a professional duty and an unparalleled editorial challenge.

The Carpathia's arrival hadn't been expected until the early hours of April 19, so when it was spotted at 6:10 p.m. on the eighteenth, off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the news spread quickly through the city and the streets began to fill with traffic. Limousines and touring cars sped so quickly down the newly asphalted Seventh Avenue that many of them slipped on its rainy surface and found themselves running into the curbs. Police were brought in to ensure that no one was allowed on the pier itself but the two thousand already issued passes.

Although the city was frenzied as it readied itself to receive the survivors, the atmosphere in Cunard's shed was muted. There was only a hush occasionally punctuated by sobbing. Pass holders were organized in groups behind placards bearing the initial of their loved one's surname. This was to make it easy for survivors to connect with their waiting parties. In addition to friends and relatives, there were professional caregivers: officers from the Salvation Army offering hospitality to those with no local contacts, doctors in white jackets and nurses in uniform to attend the sick and injured, representatives from the White Star Line to answer questions and handle problems. Against the walls of the shed was a row of stretchers for those too emotionally traumatized or physically damaged to make the walk.

Half a mile above Battery Park, the Carpathia released thirteen now empty Titanic lifeboats in order to deny newspapers the opportunity to photograph them. Three of the original sixteen they had picked up were too damaged to haul back, and they were left at the wreck site. The thirteen were all that remained of the proud steamer that had left Southampton on April 10 for its maiden voyage. Everything else was spread out over the ocean bed 550 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Carpathia turned toward the Cunard Pier, where at 9:30 it tied up. The first person to emerge was a sailor dressed in a yellow oilskin. Then out came the first survivor, a fragile and unsteady woman who needed the support of a ship's officer. She was collected by her husband, who wept tears of joy and relief on her shoulder. This scene, and ones very like it, was played over and over again through the night. In many cases the longed-for face didn't appear, and there were tears of bitterness and loss.

For waiting journalists the challenge was to work out how best to use their limited time in researching and writing the most dynamic and informative copy for the next morning's papers. This was clearly a story that would win or lose the reputations of newspapers, editors, and reporters. Everything from advanced planning and breadth of coverage to shorthand skills and speedy copyediting would be put to the test. This truly was journalism as the first draft of history.

The New York Times had led the way in the accuracy and scope of its reportage. Its newsroom received the first Associated Press report that the Titanic was in trouble at 1:20 on April 15, based on a message picked up by a Marconi station at Cape Race, Newfoundland. It stated that an iceberg had been hit, lifeboats were in the water, and a distress signal had been sent. Half an hour after this initial contact, wireless communication from the stricken liner ended. Working late that night was the paper's inspirational managing editor, Carr Van Anda, who cast his eye over the facts and intuitively felt that something far worse than a damaging collision had taken place.

After telling correspondents in Montreal and Halifax to pursue the story, he trawled the cuttings library and found that there was a history of shipping collisions with icebergs in this vicinity. The Carmania, which had arrived in New York only the day before, had reported a field of ice. A year before the Anchor line ship Columbia had smashed her stern in the same area. Two years before that the Volturne had found itself "pinched" by moving ice, some of which ground along its side.

Other ships had reported an ice pack during the past week. The Niagara had been badly dented, the Lord Cromer and the Kura had both been damaged below the waterline, and the Armenia reported an ice field at least seventy miles long. Captain Dow of the Carmania had been quoted as saying: "I never saw so much ice and so little whisky and lime juice in all my life. Had the ingredients been handy there would have been a highball for every man in the world!"

Although Van Anda knew that he couldn't go into print announcing the loss of the Titanic—as yet there was no conclusive evidence—he used his hunch to give the story of an Atlantic collision the prominence worthy of a disaster. He spread the news over four columns, and around the core information about the distress call and subsequent radio silence, he packed stories of the other ships that had encountered ice, listed important passengers, and used images of the captain and his ship. He employed the word sinking in the early editions, and there are claims that he used sunk in later editions, although, if he did, no copy of this edition is known to exist.

The arrival of the Carpathia with its hundreds of eyewitnesses presented a logistical problem for all newspapers. Who were the best passengers or crew members to interview? How should the rapacious appetite for facts and truth be balanced against the need of survivors for peace and consolation? What was the most effective yet honest way of getting an exclusive on a story that would spread as quickly as a virus once the survivors were home?

Van Anda hatched a plan. He booked an entire floor of the Strand Hotel at 502 West 14th Street, close to Pier 54, to use as the New York Times base while it covered the arrival. Telephones on this floor would be linked directly to a desk at the Times where quotes and descriptions filed by reporters could be instantly hammered into stories by skilled rewrite boys. The journalists could then be reassigned to other interviews. The Times, in common with all other papers, was only granted four pier passes, but Van Anda ordered an additional twelve reporters to head down to the area to mingle with arriving survivors and their kin.

The most vital source, Van Anda knew, was Harold Bride, the Titanic's twenty-two-year-old junior Marconi operator, who had not only survived the sinking but had worked the wireless of the Carpathia as it sailed back to America. With the captain and most of the senior officers dead, he was the only person alive who would have been present at the heart of the drama. He had been in direct contact with Captain Edward Smith, had communicated with nearby ships, had witnessed the rescue, and would have been one of the last men to leave the ship. He also had the advantage of being able to explain what he saw in nautical terms.

But how could the New York Times gain access to the Carpathia when both Cunard and the docks authority were fiercely guarding it? Van Anda came up with a solution. He would involve the Marconi organization. Cunard might turn back a reporter, but not Guglielmo Marconi, the celebrated inventor, entrepreneur, and Nobel Prize winner, whose name was synonymous with wireless communications. It was his recently developed equipment that was revolutionizing sea travel. It was unlikely that any Titanic passengers would have been saved if not for the Marconi wireless transmitter.

If Bride gave an exclusive interview, it would enhance the name of Marconi as much as that of the New York Times. Bride wouldn't lose out either. The fee for his story would equal three years' wages as a wireless operator. The Marconi office had already sent three messages to its own wireless room advising the operators to hold their stories until approached by the New York Times. The last of these, addressed to "Marconi Officer, the Carpathia and the Titanic" and signed by American Marconi's chief engineer Frederick Sammis, simply said: "Stop. Say nothing. Hold your story for dollars in four figures. Mr. Marconi agreeing. Will meet you at dock." This was later assumed to be another reason for the Carpathia's media blackout. Even President Taft couldn't get in touch to find out whether his trusted military aide Major Archibald Butt had survived. (He had not.)

On the night of April 18, presumably unaware that the Carpathia was ahead of schedule, Marconi was at a party. Van Anda sent a messenger to fetch him down to Pier 54 to board the ship with Sammis and New York Times reporter Jim Speers. It was now around 11:30 and almost all the passengers had already disembarked. The copy would have to be ready for the printer within an hour if it was to make the first edition on April 19.

When they got to the pier, police stopped them. The reporter, Speers, protested: "Sir, we are Mr. Marconi, his manager, and a New York Times reporter." The officer pushed the Marconi engineer Sammis back, believing him to be the journalist in question, saying, "Mr. Marconi and his manager may pass through. The reporter can't." Speers and Marconi boarded, while Sammis had to remain behind the police line. The two men made their way to the wireless room where they found Bride still tapping out messages left for him by passengers. "That's hardly worth sending now, boy," said Marconi. Bride, his frostbitten feet still bandaged, looked up slowly and then recognized his distinguished employer.

Bride's story, which he poured out to Speers in a rambling monologue, was everything Van Anda had hoped it would be. He'd got out of bed on the night of April 14 to relieve the senior operator, Jack Phillips, only to find that the Titanic had been in a collision. He watched as Phillips calmly made contact with the Carpathia and the Olympic and saw Captain Smith's dawning realization that the ship was beyond salvation.

In a sensational comment, he revealed that a stoker (one of the men who stoked the ship's furnaces with coal) had come into the Titanic's wireless room to steal Phillips's life jacket. Bride attacked him. "I did my duty," he said. "I hope I finished him. I don't know. We left him on the cabin floor of the wireless room and he was not moving." It was never clear from this or subsequent interviews whether Bride was claiming to have killed him or merely to have knocked him unconscious and left him to drown.

Phillips died of exposure while in the water. Bride found the last remaining collapsible boat, but when it was pushed overboard, it landed upside down with him underneath it. Bride managed to swim away as sparks poured from one of the Titanic's funnels, and the ship finally disappeared from view. After some time in the water, he was given space on his original boat, which had since been righted.

Bride gave a detailed account of how the ship's band had carried on playing throughout the sinking. The matter-of-fact way he told the story gave it added poignancy: "From aft came the tunes of the band," he said. "It was a ragtime tune, I don't know what. Then there was 'Autumn.' Phillips ran aft and that was the last I ever saw of him alive."

His description of the ship's final moments suggested that the musicians didn't even attempt to escape in a lifeboat. "The ship was gradually turning on her nose—just like a duck does that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind—to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing 'Autumn' then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her after quarter sticking straight up into the air, began to settle—slowly."

Bride ended by saying that two things about the sinking stood out in his mind above all others. One was that Jack Phillips had continued to send messages even after Captain Smith told him he was free to leave his position and look after his own life. The other was the band that played on. "The way the band kept playing was a noble thing ... How they ever did it I cannot imagine."

The twenty-five-hundred-word first-person account appeared in the next day's New York Times along with fifty-two other stories about the ship. The headline was "Thrilling story by Titanic's wireless man." The subheadings were "Bride tells how he and Phillips worked and how he finished a stoker who tried to steal Phillips's life belt—Ship sank to tune of 'Autumn.' "The image of the lighted ship sliding under the waves ("She was a beautiful sight then"), while the band carried on regardless, captured the public's imagination.

Getting to talk to Bride was a journalistic scoop and one that would be associated with Van Anda for the rest of his life. But there was another journalist who'd been one step ahead. Unbeknown to the New York Times, Carlos F. Hurd, a thirty-six-year-old reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, owned by Ralph Pulitzer, had been with his wife, Katherine, on the Carpathia as a paying passenger headed for the Mediterranean when it had diverted to pick up the Titanic survivors.


Excerpted from The Band that Played On by Steve Turner. Copyright © 2011 Steve Turner. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steve Turnerbegan his journalistic career as Features Editor of the British rock monthly Beat Instrumental . He has written many music biographies, including Conversations with Eric Clapton , Rattle and Hum (U2), and A Hard Day's Write (the Beatles).

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