Reviewed by Matthew Algeo

algeo signs off 4/25

Next year will mark the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. Naturally we can expect — what else? — an ocean of books marking the occasion. In “The Band That Played On,” Steve Turner has found a way to shed new light on this well-documented tragedy. He tells the story of the Titanic’s eight-piece band, which famously went down with the ship, playing their instruments until the very end.

The men composing the band were, by Edwardian standards, a fairly diverse lot: four Britons, a Belgian, a Scot, a German and a Frenchman. They ranged in age from 22 to 40. All but one had performed on luxury liners before, and they were inclined to enjoy the worldly benefits of their occupation (at least two conceived children out of wedlock). But their jobs were demanding. Musicians on the Titanic had to play three sets each day (lunch, afternoon tea and after dinner), as well as on special occasions, such as Sunday church services. They were also required to memorize more than 300 astonishingly diverse tunes: ragtime, waltzes, show tunes, foxtrots, classical.

They were brought together, more or less, by chance. Charles and Frederick Black, the Liverpool brothers who booked the band for the Titanic, assembled the musicians somewhat haphazardly: Cellist Wes Woodward was probably recruited just days before the liner set sail.

Indeed, the story of the Titanic itself is one of chance. In September 1911, a luxury liner called the Olympic collided with the Hawke, a Royal Navy cruiser. One of the Olympic’s damaged propellers was replaced with one that had been destined for the Titanic. As a result, the Titanic’s maiden voyage was pushed back from March 20, 1912, to April 10. “If the Hawke and the Olympic had never met,” Turner notes, “then neither would the iceberg and the Titanic.”

After the iceberg and the Titanic met, the band played on. But exactly what they played is unknown. Most survivors recalled hearing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” as the liner sank into the Atlantic. Others said they heard a tune called “Autumn.” What is beyond dispute, however, is that the band perished with the boat. All eight members drowned. Only three of their bodies were recovered.

Why did they play on? Was it out of some sense of duty, an extreme — even suicidal — case of stiff-upper-lipness? Or did the ship’s captain order them to keep playing to calm the passengers? Turner, of course, is unable to say. Not that the answer really matters. To the newspapers and English-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic, they were paragons of (privileged white male) virtue, “heroic bandsmen who played the mighty vessel to its doom,” as one editorialist put it.

Only a handful of voices dissented. One was novelist Joseph Conrad’s. He blamed the disaster on the “arrogant folly” of White Star, the company that owned the Titanic. “I, who am not a sentimentalist,” Conrad wrote, “think it would have been finer if the band of the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing — whatever tune they were playing, poor devils.”

For those who survived the sinking, memories of the band were especially potent. A year after the disaster, a survivor named Lucy Noel Martha was in a restaurant when she heard a song called “The Barcarolle” playing in the background. A “cold and intense horror” shot through her when she realized the last time she’d heard it was on the Titanic.

Turner concentrates on the musicians’ lives leading up to their rendezvous on the Titanic, rather than on the disaster itself. The subtitle of the book calls the story of these eight men “extraordinary,” yet it is their very ordinariness that lends poignancy. Six days before the Titanic sailed, violinist Jock Hume picked up his bandsman’s uniform at a shop in Liverpool. Turner notes that Hume owed two shillings for a small lapel pin in the shape of a lyre — the emblem of White Star. Hume charged the bill against his anticipated earnings on the Titanic. After the sinking, the Black brothers sent the unpaid bill to Hume’s father.

Turner’s exhaustive research unearthed many such 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” (to be re-released in a 3D version for the centennial, of course). But Turner has done the band an even greater service. He has made them human.

Matthew Algeo is the author of “The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth.”


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

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

By Steve Turner

Thomas Nelson. 259 pp. $24.99