I suspect we’ll probably see a cluster of Titanic books in the next year or so. Next April will be the one-hundredth anniversary of the ill-fated ship’s first and last voyage. Look out for table-top books, collector’s items, biographies and fictional accounts – all based on the event. Some contributions will be better than others. The Band that Played On:The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic by Steve Turner (Thomas Nelson, 2011) is one of the better offerings.
The world’s enduring fascination with the Titanic tragedy is peculiar. There have been any number of shipwrecks in the past two centuries, some of which led to even more loss of life. But there is something about the Titanic’s sinking that strikes a chord even today.
People once called it “unsinkable.”
It foundered on its maiden voyage.
The passengers were a microcosm of Europe: poor and rich, wealthy and immigrant, passenger and crew.
In The Band that Played On, Steve Turner tells the story of the eight members of the band who played on the deck of the ship during the sinking. Turner’s tale gives brief biographical history of each of these young men. At times, his sketches are indeed “sketchy,” due mainly to the lack of surviving documents that relate to these men’s lives. But where Turner has good information, he is able to paint a remarkably accurate (and engaging) picture of these men.
This book is meticulously researched. 40% of its pages are devoted to footnotes and additional information. I was surprised to see the amount of material that Turner was able to uncover in his pursuit of these men’s stories. As an historian, Turner lays out possible scenarios and refrains from making dogmatic assertions. But this way of approaching the book doesn’t hurt it. Instead, it allows the reader the chance to travel back in time and see the varied interpretations of eyewitness testimony that were present even then.
Every Titanic book has a villain. Most of them zero in on Bruce Ismay, whose greed and pride led him to urge the captain to speed through the iceberg field. But Turner never sets his sights on Ismay. Instead, he focuses on brothers Charles and Frederkick Black. By the time the Titanic set sail, these music agents had a monopoly on supplying musicians to the ocean liners. Musicians were treated unfairly and were forced to comply with substandard accommodations. One of the most disturbing tales in the book recounts how the Black brothers wrote the father of one of the musicians who perished, demanding that he pay off an outstanding bill for the tailoring of his son’s jacket to include the White Star insignia.
The hero of the story is bandleader Wallace Hartley, a devout Methodist who considered “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to be one of his favorite hymns. Though some historians have disputed the eyewitnesses who claimed that this hymn was the last song played by the band, Turner makes a persuasive case for believing that this hymn was indeed the band’s swan song. Details surrounding the discovery of Hartley’s body, his funeral, and the (possible) discovery of his violin make this book much more interesting than the over-told account of what happened the night of the sinking.
Here’s a trailer for the book: