Brit Book Reviews: The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, only The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and maybe The Beach Boys, U2 and several other bands are famous on a world-wide scale. But for a short period 100 years ago, a group of eight jobbing musicians became just as famous – though almost nothing was known about any of them.

They were called heroes and were celebrated with concerts, statues and plaques, and their pictures – all from different sources, since they were never photographed together – graced posters, books, postcards and sheet music. They were the band who entertained passengers on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and played as the lifeboats were launched and the water began rising.

In late 2011 there were sensational news reports about the recovered violin of band leader Wallace Hartley, who had strapped it to his body, and apparent plans to tour the instrument around the world before giving it up for auction. Fortuitous timing indeed for author Turner, who found evidence of the violin and concludes that water damage alone should ruin any chance it’s genuine, though maybe the especially-buoyant lifejackets kept it out of the freezing sea?

Record-breaking auction items aside, this book purports to be the first that examines the background of these eight band members, and as such is certainly an exhaustive (and at times perhaps rather necessarily straying off-course) investigation, with pictures of childhood homes and work/leisure places, solid trawling through Government records and a lengthy look at the parents and siblings of the men.

In today’s digital, downloadable, auto-tune music world it’s hard to imagine how much classical music was a revered entertainment in the early 1900s, and how feasible it was to earn a career as a live musician. Turner evocatively brings to life those long-gone days of tea rooms, pier concerts, “smokers”, church events and the role that music (live and in the home) played in everyday life.

All the men in the band were from musical backgrounds, and all worked for brothers CW and FN Black, a monopolistic agency who booked musicians for the countless cruises around the world (this was an age when the ship was king, and is again brought to life in the book). The chance for adventure and travel was irresistible to many musicians, and a job on Titanic – for the tips alone, as they mainly played in the First Class section – was highly prized.

Of course, as the world knows, it didn’t turn out that way. The band famously played as the Titanic slowly sank into the sea, and this book looks rather deeply into whether it really was “Nearer, My God, To Thee” that the band played, and even whether they were told to play and keep everyone calm, or their religious backgrounds (again, another antiquity of the age) made them feel it was their responsibility.

Only three of the eight bodies were recovered, and woven throughout the narrative are the ifs and maybes (expected in such tragic tales); if only the HMS Hawke hadn’t collided with the Olympic and bought up the launch date of Titanic, or if one bandsmen hadn’t been replaced with another at the last minute.

There’s also a discussion of the aftermath of the sinking. Hartley’s burial (he was the only one returned to England) became a focus for the public and saw 30,000 people lining the route, yet since they weren’t employed by White Star Line and Black’s insurance didn’t cover this kind of unique event, there was no legal recourse.

Many of the dependents of the bandsmen suffered emotionally and financially – some even notoriously receiving bills for burial and uniform repairs – and a largely inconclusive legal wrangle ensued that in relation to the “memorial funds” that were established as a knee-jerk reaction to the disaster. Turner covers this bitter-tasting element of the story in some detail, and it’s depressing to think that 100 years later those in need in similar circumstances are still often left twisting in the wind.

In early April 2012 the 1997 blockbuster film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio will be re-released in 3D, the moving scenes of the band playing in the face of death again shining a light on these musicians. The Wallace violin may be worth a fortune (none of which of course will go to the descendants), but now there’s a way for people to read about Wallace, Georges, Roger, Theo, Percy, Fred, Jock and Wes, and the night they became the most famous musicians in the world.