Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The last piece played by the Titanic's musicians was "Nearer My God to Thee."
Origins: The final moments of the Titanic produced many stirring tales of bravery and heroism: officers who stayed on deck to load and launch lifeboats until all the boats were safely away, engine room crew who worked away well below decks to keep power and lights running as long as possible, wireless operators who remained at their posts even after the captain released them from duty, and passengers who stood aside so that others might have their seats in the too-few lifeboats. All these people gallantly risked their lives so that others might have a better chance of survival; not because they had to, but because they felt it was their duty.
One of most compelling of these tales of self-sacrifice is that of the Titanic's band. They weren't part of the ship's crew (although they nominally signed ship's orders, they were carried as passengers), and they weren't needed to keep the power running or to load the lifeboats; likely no one would have protested if they had sought places in lifeboats. Instead, of their own volition, they stayed with the ship until the very end, steadfastly playing light, airy music to help keep passengers calm while the available lifeboats were loaded.
Many different tunes have been put forth as the final song, but for now we'll focus on the only two that have any real weight of evidence behind them: "Nearer, My God, to Thee" and "Autumn." The primary (and only) evidence for latter comes from an interview given to The New York Times by Harold Bride, the Titanic's junior wireless operator, immediately upon his arrival in New York aboard the rescue ship Carpathia:
When I was dragged aboard the Carpathia I went to the hospital at first. I stayed there for ten hours. I took the key, and I never left the wireless cabin after that.In brief, Bride should be considered a credible witness because:
Our captain had left us at this time, and Phillips told me to run and tell him what the Carpathia had answered. I did so, and I went through an awful mass of people to his cabin. The decks were full of scrambling men and women.
I went to my cabin and dressed.
Every few minutes Phillips would send me to the Captain with little
I went out on deck and looked around. The water was pretty close up to the boat deck.
I thought it was time to look about and see if there was anything detached that would float. I remembered [my lifebelt] under my bunk. I went and got it.
I saw a collapsible boat near a funnel and went over to it.
I looked out. The boat deck was awash.
From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don't know what. Then there was "Autumn." Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.
I went to the place I had seen the collapsible boat on the boat deck, and to my surprise I saw the boat and the men still trying to push it off. I guess there wasn't a sailor in the crowd. They couldn't do it. I went up to them and was just lending a hand when a large wave came awash of the deck.
The big wave carried the boat off. I had hold of an oarlock, and I went off with it.
Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel. There must have been an explosion, but we had heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. 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
The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebeltt on, it was still on deck playing "Autumn." How they ever did it I cannot imagine.
Whatever the truth of the Titanic's "last song" legend, Eaton and Haas neatly sum up its significance:
One irrefutable fact, however, remains: the musicians stayed until all hope of rescue was gone. Who can say how many lives their efforts saved? The final moments of how many were cheered or ennobled by their music? 'Songe d'Automne' or 'Autumn.' 'Horbury' or 'Bethany'. What difference? The memory of the bandsmen and their courageous music will never die.Additional information:
Last updated: 18 December 2005
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