The band played on.
It was the ultimate in British fortitude and part of the Titanic legend: the eight-piece band under band leader Wallace Hartley continued to play merry music as the ship sank into the waves on April 15, 1912.
“The band leader had orders from the captain to play lively, upbeat ragtime tunes to keep the spirits high,” said Phil Passen, folk musician and historian. Passen will commemorate the 100th anniversary with Songs of the Titanic Era, this Saturday, 2 p.m. at the Forest Park Public Library, 7555 W. Jackson Blvd. Passen performs on the hammered dulcimer.
To research the program, Passen scoured all the resources he could find, including the White Star Line Songbook, survivors’ memoirs, and the Internet. He’ll be performing the Boy Scout campsite favorite, “When that Great Ship Went Down,” as well as blues folk musician Huddie (aka Leadbelly) Leadbetter’s 1920s song “Titanic” recorded by American folklorist Alan Lomax.
Among the hits of 1912 that he’ll play are “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Glow Worm.”
For passengers who didn’t make it into lifeboats, the band is said to have performed solemn hymns such as “Nearer My God to Thee,” as the ship sank. Other survivor memoirs mention hearing “Autumn Waltz” across the water.
Violinist Hartley had earlier performed on another doomed ship, the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915. After his body was recovered in the water after the Titanic sank, he was buried in Colne, England, and 40,000 people lined the roads during his funeral procession.
Passen will also play the music that immigrants (many Irish) listened to in steerage. “White Star Lines were known to have better accommodations in steerage – and food – to get the immigrant business,” he noted. “Most of the steerage passengers were Irish but also from Eastern and Northern Europe.” The low-budget passengers suffered the highest casualty rates. “More men in first class survived than children in third class,” said Passen. Every night, prior to the iceberg collision, Irish musicians on board hosted a dance and session. “The pipes of one Irish piper were recently excavated from the wreck.”
Passen will perform a song from the port city of Southampton in England, titled, “There’s Jobs for the Boys at the Dockside.”
“Almost 750 of the 900 crew members came from Southampton, and 550 died,” said Passen. “So almost one third of the crew who died were from one town. It was exciting news to have jobs at the dockside, but a week later, they were dead.” He said the English town is commemorating the anniversary this month as well.
Passen performs regionally and specializes in bluegrass, old time and traditional Celtic music. He has produced an album of Civil War songs and gives historic programs at libraries and the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. He said he got interested in the Titanic through the poetry of Thomas Hardy, who was a fiddler and also played dance music. The poem “The Convergence of the Twain” describes the collision between the dreams of mankind and the destructive forces of nature: “And as the smart ship grew, in stature, grace, and hue, in shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.”