THAT SINKING FEELING The Titanic & Its Musicians (and Ian Whitcomb…)

With the
James Cameron blockbuster back in theatres – in 3D, no less – we revisit tunes
from the doomed voyage, as performed by the band that played on.

 

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR 

 

One hundred years ago this month, the RMS Titanic, which set sail on its
maiden voyage from Southampton,
England on April 10, 1912, bound for New York City, struck an iceberg on April
14 and sank just over two and a half hours later. 1500 people died due to there
not being enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The large loss of life, the
famous personalities on board (millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, owner of New
York’s Astoria Hotel; Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s; the colorful
activist Margaret Brown, later immortalized as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”), the
claim that the biggest ship in the world was deemed “practically unsinkable,”
and the poignant twist of the luxurious ocean liner sinking on its very first
trip meant that the Titanic passed
into legend the moment her stern sank beneath the waters. The event gripped the
public imagination, providing fodder for endless sermons and editorials as
people sought to twist meaning out of the event to suit their own purposes. Was
the wreck due to a base desire for “speed and greed” over more charitable
values? Was the order to board “women and children first” in the lifeboats an
example of chivalry or harsh lesson about the “natural order” of society (meaning
women shouldn’t trouble themselves over getting the right to vote)? Had man
been brought to heel because of his arrogance toward nature and/or God? There
was no end to the supposed meaning that could be read into the sinking. As a memorable
headline in The Onion put it in a
story about the ill-fated liner, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg.”

 

But after the initial flurry of press coverage,
the event receded from the public mind. That changed in 1955 with the
publication of Walter Lord’s classic account of the disaster, A Night To Remember. Since then an
increasing number of books and films have chronicled the event, further fueled
by the discovery of the wreck in 1985. And as you’d expect in an anniversary
year, there are a lot of Titanic-related
releases scheduled for 2012. Amazon lists over 30 books on the subject due to
come out this year. Some are reissues (Daniel Butler’s “Unsinkable”: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic, an overwrought
rehash of Lord’s book); some are for beginners (Greg Ward’s The Rough Guide To The Titanic, a great
place to get the basic facts); some find a genuinely new angle (Frances
Wilson’s fascinating How To Survive The
Titanic: Or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
, a biography of the chairman of
the company that owned the Titanic,
who was condemned in the court of public opinion for getting into a lifeboat
instead of nobly going down with the ship); one, if the title and cover art are
any indication – Deck Z: Titanic:
Unsinkable. Undead
– is about zombies. James Cameron’s mega-hit Titanic has just been reissued in 3D. Two
mini series are also scheduled: the four part British series Titanic, written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, due for broadcast on ABC
starting April 14
, and a 12 part US series, Titanic: Blood and Steel. Cameron is also set to host a National Geographic special on the
subject, set to air April 8, though its title – Titanic: The Final Word – is decidedly improbable. If the past few
decades are any indication, it’ll hardly be the “final word,” but merely
another stage in a story that continues to be retold.

 

There’s one item that’s unfortunately missing
among the reissues and tie-ins: a re-release of Rhino’s 1997 album Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful
Voyage
. The album serves up a selection of the music that was likely to
have been played on the ship, performed by contemporary musicians using the
same instrumental configuration of the musicians on board the Titanic – violin, cello, bass, and
piano. The six musicians on Rhino’s album are billed as “The White Star
Orchestra” (the White Star Line being the company that owned the Titanic), a group assembled by Ian
Whitcomb
, who plays piano, accordion, and ukulele on the album, and who
conceived the project initially. The lovingly designed package features
extensive liner notes (written by Whitcomb) with plenty of accompanying
illustrations, including sheet music of songs inspired by the disaster (such as
“Heroes of the Titanic” and “Just As
The Ship Went Down”).

 

 

 

 

 

Whitcomb’s background includes not only a
connection to the Titanic (family
lore has it his grandfather had purchased a ticket for the maiden voyage but
cancelled at the last minute), but also a brief flirtation with pop success. In
the summer of 1963, Whitcomb, a student at Dublin’s
Trinity College
in Dublin (and also a member of a local blues
band), came to the US for
the first time and decided to pay a visit to his cousin, who lived in Seattle. “She met me at
the bus, and we went along to this coffeehouse that she knew in [historic Seattle neighborhood] Pioneer Square,” he
recalls. “And I started playing the piano there that night, and the guys who
ran the coffee house heard me and they said, ‘Why don’t you come and perform
here?’ And that was how my career began in America.”

 

Whitcomb returned to Seattle a year later hoping to further his
career, and was signed by Jerry Dennon, then riding high as the producer of the
Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie.” Whitcomb’s second single for Dennon’s
Jerden Records label, “This Sporting Life,” released in 1965, put the kind of
contemporary twist on a folk song that the Animals did with “House of the
Rising Sun” (it also featured Gerry Roslie of Northwest cult act The Sonics on
organ) and captured immediate radio
attention. “I was visiting Oklahoma
to see my brother Robin,” Whitcomb says. “And while I was there I had telegrams
from Jerry saying ‘This record is breaking out very big!’ Because records then would
become hits very fast indeed. The next thing I knew, back at Trinity College,
I was getting telegrams – telegrams, that’s so old-fashioned, isn’t it? – saying
that Capitol Records had leased it.”

 

Asked for a follow up record, Whitcomb went into
the studio with his group, Bluesville. “I was still a student,” he says. “We
went to the studio between lectures. We were going to record ‘No Tears for
Johnny’; we thought that would be the hit. We spent all our time on that, and did
about ten other songs. Then, at the very end of the session we had some extra
time, and I said to the band, ‘Why don’t we do this thing that we’ve been doing
in clubs, where we play this lick and I’ll sing along to it.’ I made up the
words as I was going along.”

 

 

 

 

 

As fate would have it, that was the song that
Capitol subsidiary Tower decided to release as a single – two minutes and forty
two seconds of Whitcomb begging his honey to “do the jerk with me,” punctuated throughout
by his orgasmic gasping (inspired by the similar antics on Jerry Lee Lewis’
records). “I was shocked they released it because I thought we’d done some much
better stuff than that,” says Whitcomb.  “I
thought, ‘What? This is a piece of junk! It hasn’t even got a title!'” The
single was eventually titled “You Turn Me On,” and despite some initial
censorship (in an anecdote that could’ve been featured in Portlandia, Portland’s
mayor initially banned Whitcomb himself from even performing in the city), quickly
soared into the Top 10. “It was one of those absolutely unstoppable records,”
says Whitcomb. “It just went zooming up the charts. Although at the time I was
embarrassed by it, and I got flak from fellow British Invaders – you know, ‘Oh,
that’s just absolute trash! It’s rubbish! Especially when Bob Dylan’s taking
rock ‘n’ roll into another stratosphere completely! Now pop is a serious form!’
And the young guys were also really jealous – why would girls be screaming at
this guy who’s singing in a sort of effeminate manner? In a way, I was a sort
of Justin Bieber of my time. I didn’t look threatening.

 

“You Turn Me On” remained a one-off novelty hit
for Whitcomb. “I still think that ‘You Turn Me On’ is a really good rock ‘n’ roll
record,” he says. “And I understand why it became a hit, because it’s got a
terrific beat, the drumming is wonderful, the whole thing has got a joyous,
happy, jolly, exciting, sexy sound to it. It was
nice being a rock ‘n’ roll star, but I sort of knew unconsciously that it
couldn’t last. I’m proud of ‘You Turn Me On’ as rock ‘n’ roll, but, you know,
where else can you go? You can’t do rock ‘n’ roll all your life. And the
recordings that I made subsequently, playing the ukulele and recording old
songs like ‘Lucky Jim’ and so forth – by doing that I had torpedoed my rock ‘n’
roll career. And even then, I was a historian; I was interested in older music,
and I knew that I wasn’t a true
rocker.”

 

 

 

Whitcomb
has since pursued his own musical course – his website bills him as “America’s
foremost Tin-Pan Alley man” – with occasional intriguing side excursions, such
as when he produced Mae West’s 1972 album Great
Balls of Fire
, where she tackled such covers as “Rock Around the Clock,”
“Light My Fire,” and the title track (“That’s another story in itself,” he says.
“It was a terrific experience.  I was
very, very fond of Mae West, but I did see the funny side of it as well”). He’s
also published several books on music (After
The Ball: Pop Music From Rag to Rock
; Rock
Odyssey: A Chronicle of the Sixties
; Resident
Alien
, about his life in America),
among myriad other projects.

 

His involvement with the Titanic project came when he auditioned to play the ship’s band leader, Wallace
Hartley, in Cameron’s film. “I was fascinated by the Titanic,
as we all are, because you’ve got this hubris involved,” he says. “It is
hubris; it’s the proud, 20th-Century science and know-how and building and all
this stuff coming against pure nature. That’s the drama in the story. I don’t
mean to say that anybody should have drowned aboard that ship, but the human
arrogance is something that we must keep in check. You’ve got to have a certain
humility, and that’s what the Titanic was about, that’s the drama of it; that nature can beat you every time. And it
won’t tell you in advance, and it doesn’t have a spokesman, it doesn’t have
anybody in charge of it, it just does it.” Though not winning the role,
Whitcomb was hired as an advisor on the film.

 

The fate of the band’s musicians is very much a
part of the Titanic‘s legend. There
were eight musicians on board during the voyage. A quintet (led by Hartley)
largely played in the First Class Lounge; a trio played outside the a la carte
restaurant and the Café Parisien. After the collision, the musicians took up
their instruments and assembled in First Class Lounge, later moving to the Boat
Deck, and finally out on the Boat Deck itself. None survived the sinking.

 

That much is certain – everything else, from
what the musicians played to how long they performed, is the subject of much
debate among Titanic enthusiasts. Some
have insisted the band played nothing but hymns; others are equally insistent
that they played upbeat material. The latter supposition makes more sense; the
musicians were supposed to lighten the mood on board, not remind everyone of
their impending doom.

 

But what about the last song the band played
that night? It’s famously said that it was the hymn “Nearer My God To Thee,”
some even claiming the musicians bravely continued playing the tune until they
were literally washed into the sea. Walter Lord devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his 1986 follow up to A Night To Remember, the book The Night Lives On. In proposing a new candidate for the Last Song
Played, Lord pointed out that the “Nearer My God To Thee” was set to three
different melodies, meaning that some people who thought they heard it were
surely mistaken. He then turned to the testimony of Harold Bride, the ship’s
surviving wireless operator. Before he was washed off the ship as the Titanic went under, Bride recalled the
band playing a tune he called “Autumn.” Though it was initially assumed he
meant a hymn, Lord makes the case Bride was actually referring to an Archibald
Joyce composition called “Songe d’Automne” that was popular in London cafés and skating
rinks in 1912, and was commonly referred to as “Autumn.”

 

 

 

 

Whitcomb says he pointed this out to Cameron,
who nonetheless went on to use “Nearer My God To Thee” in his movie. “I
understand the dramatic reasons,” says Whitcomb. “It’s better to have it be ‘Nearer
My God to Thee.’ Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe we could do a sort of
complementary record.’ That was one of my reasons for making this record. It
was a chance to put on a CD a lot of period music that otherwise wouldn’t get
on a CD through a major company. That’s one of the main things that propelled
me to do it. I knew I had a chance to expose some of this great music – it’s
called ‘British Light Music’ – and British music hall songs. I’ve always loved
British music hall songs.”

 

Whitcomb took his idea to Rhino Records, who
were receptive to it. “We just had a
few weeks to put the whole thing together,” he says. “By this time I’d
collected most of the music that could have been played aboard the ship; I’d
got good access because of my connection with the film. I got access to the
White Star Line’s music book that had the list of all the songs the band could
be asked to play; that’s how I knew what was in their repertoire. So I selected
songs from that.” The numbers range from light classical pieces (“The Merry Widow Waltz”), to popular
songs (“Glow-Worm”), to ragtime (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”). “‘And then I
thought, ‘I wonder what they were playing in the steerage class?'” Whitcomb
says. “I knew they had a piano down there and I thought, ‘I wonder if the
passengers there, they might have had a sing-a-long or something, a dance.’ And
so I was able to put on the record some music hall songs, the sort of things
you might have heard in the steerage” – such as “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”
and “Frankie and Johnny.”

 

The final song choices reflected Whitcomb’s own
preferences. “That’s really what I narrowed it down to – songs that I liked!”
he says. “I wanted to make a record that was really good musically, that you
could play without knowing anything about the Titanic. And I wanted to have a record that wasn’t just a document;
I wanted to go above that and create something artistic.” Creating what
amounted to a narrative for the record necessitated making a few aesthetic
decisions. In the course of his research, Whitcomb had found music for a number
called “The White Star Polka-March,” “But it wasn’t any good!” he says. “So I
wrote a different bit of music” – which he called “The White Star March” in the
liner notes and credited to “J.T. Gardner.” As the opening track, the piece
serves as a sort of overture for the album, segueing into a recitation of
Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain (Lines On The Loss Of The Titanic),” written shortly after the
disaster, and read by Whitcomb.

 

After the haunting poem (“And as the smart ship
grew/In stature, grace, and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg
too”), the program continues; light, sometimes breezy, and very charming. Going
with Walter Lord’s version of events, the final number is “Songe d’Automne” (Dream
of Autumn), a melancholy piece with a lighter middle section – which, if it was
the last song played, would have provided a poignant soundtrack to the ship’s
final moments. But then, on the record, comes a “hidden” track, the bittersweet
“Raggin’ The Waves,” credited to one “Harry Poole,” but again, like “The White
Star March,” written by Whitcomb. “Both ‘The White Star March’ and ‘Raggin’ The
Waves’ are kind of bookends,” Whitcomb explains. “Everything else is completely
authentic, but my considerations were to make a good record. I wanted something
sprightly to start off the record. And with ‘Raggin’ the Waves,’ I thought
‘Well, at the end, let’s imagine that the ship is down. It’s at the bottom.’
It’s supposed to sound like an eerie piece coming from the bottom of the ocean,
the ocean bed.” The mournful melody certainly sounds as if it’s rising from the
decks of a ghost ship.

 

The album was released in June 1997, later winning
the Grammy for “Best Recording Package” (Whitcomb also received a nomination
for Best Album Notes). Sales of 200,000-plus copies meant Whitcomb was able to put
together a sequel for Varese Vintage, 1998’s Titanic Tunes: A Sing-a-Long in Steerage, as well as the accompanying
songbooks Titanic Tunes and The Titanic Songbook. “I thought, ‘Well,
here’s another chance to get these music hall songs out,” says Whitcomb. “Everybody
was getting in on the act, so I managed to do quite well. But it wasn’t so much
money; it wasn’t one of those cold, calculated commercial decisions. It was
that I love this music! I believe both of those albums are just nice bits of
music and they don’t necessarily have to be attached to the Titanic. But the only way I could get
that stuff released was to have the Titanic brand on there.”

 

1997 also saw the release of Cameron’s Titanic film. The Celtic-flavored
soundtrack became a surprise hit, topping the charts and selling over 11
million copies, propelled in part by the success of the film’s theme song, “My
Heart Will Go On,” sung by Celine Dion, which also became a number one hit. Titanic: Music As Heard on the Fateful
Voyage
is a far more accurate depiction of the music of the era. “There
was, as yet, no distinction between highbrow and lowbrow,” Whitcomb writes in
his liner notes. “Organ-grinders played Brahms and Bizet and Wagner. Sir Edward
Elgar wrote popular waltzes. Classically trained musicians wrote for the
frothy, girlie-filled musical comedies. Music hall songs could please royal
ears: Queen Victoria had been fond of a piece called ‘Come Where The Booze Is
Cheaper.'”

 

The musicians were not making a bid for immortality when they arrived
on deck on the Titanic‘s final night
to play one last time. They were simply doing their duty. But by remaining at
their post to the bitter end, they passed into history – a selfless act best epitomized
by the phrase: “And the band played on.”

 

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