Graves Registry: Titanic's farewell song?


"Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down

Darkness be over me, my rest a stone."

There is a maritime museum in Fall River, Mass. A section of it is dedicated to the Titanic, so it was of even more interest to me than the house on Second Street, where the attractive daughter of Andrew Borden used an ax to settle grievances, real and perceived, with her father and stepmother.

At the time I visited it, the museum boasted a deck chair retrieved from the North Atlantic, Madeleine Astor's lifejacket, and the 28 foot long model of the ocean liner constructed for the 1953 film version of the disaster that starred Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.

There was also a recording by a survivor of the sinking who, in a shaky voice, recalled her experiences on that night to remember. She stated that she was always concerned about the people who found refuge from the water by climbing up on the iceberg that the Titanic had struck. What a terrible fate, drifting off into the frigid night on the very instrument of your peril!

This well-intentioned lady's observation was a perfect example of why recollections by participants in a catastrophe are not generally very reliable sources of factual information. (The fatal berg was miles behind the ship when Captain Smith ordered the engines stopped.) They are probably experiencing the most traumatic event of their lifetimes. Memories are fogged by assumptions; perceptions are numbed by fear.

The White Star shipping line didn't discourage the legends that arose from the tragedy. The myth that Captain Smith's last act was to hand up a baby into a lifeboat and then swim off into the darkness with the exhortation to "Be British!" deflected some of the culpability that White Star's senior captain bore for the disaster and dovetailed nicely with the company's best interests.

One of the most enduring of Titanic's legacy of legends is the decision by the ship's eight member band to offer "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as their last song. Whatever the final song was on that night, its timing was probably more dependent upon the musician's increasingly tentative footing on the deck than any other factor.

The band had begun playing popular songs of the period in the first class lounge at a time when most of the passengers were completely unaware of the perilous situation they faced. As the Titanic settled deeper into the water, they moved out onto the Boat Deck near the entrance to the Grand Staircase and the suggestion may have been made that more reverent music would be appropriate. (An older gentleman later insisted that "Nearer, My God, to Thee" was most definitely not the last song played by the ship's band. If it was, he sourly conceded, it was "in the worst possible taste.")

None of the ship's musicians survived, so the most obvious source of definitive information was gone. The ensemble's leader, Wallace Henry Hartley, was born and raised in Colne, Lancashire, England where his father was the choirmaster at Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel. It is very likely that young Wallace first heard "Nearer, My God, to Thee," when his father introduced the song to the congregation. The lyrics, written by an English poetess named Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848), were based loosely upon a passage in Genesis.

Wallace Hartley served on many Cunard liners, including the Lusitania and the Mauretania, as a violinist. He was assigned the position of bandmaster on the Titanic and the opportunity overcame his reluctance to leave the young woman to whom he had recently become engaged. Atlantic crossings were dangerous and shipwrecks were not uncommon. Hartley stated at one time that, should he be lost at sea, he would prefer either "Nearer, My God, to Thee" or "O God Our Help in Ages Past" to be sung at his funeral.

The most persuasive argument against Ms. Adams' hymn came from Harold Bride, the liner's surviving wireless operator. (Jack Phillips, Titanic's senior wireless operator, was pulled out of the water and onto an overturned collapsible lifeboat, where he later died.) Bride was one of only two survivors who were close enough to the music to hear the songs being played and he insisted that the last song was an English waltz called "Autumn."

Does it really matter 104 years removed from that terrible night? Probably not. And, if no one knows for certain what the last song was, then "Nearer, My God, to Thee," which James Cameron used in his historically impressive if dramatically leaky 1997 epic, serves as well as any candidate for the honor. As the song swells up over a shot of lifeboats warmed by the rising sun at the conclusion of the 1953 film, the promise it heralds makes the suffering that had gone on before almost seem worthwhile.

— Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist


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