One hundred years ago this week the Titanic struck an iceberg and famously sunk in the north Atlantic, taking with it 1,500 souls.
Of the many mysteries of that disaster, the final song that the band played as the ship went down remains an enduring unknown.
Langford-based music historian and performer Johnny Vallis has an educated guess, but like any great mystery, you can never know for sure.
Vallis, better known in Victoria for his Buddy Holly act, helped a U.K.-based Harkit Records research those eight Titanic musicians and the music they likely would have played for Songs of the Titanic, a compilation CD in honour of the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
Band members were split between first and second class decks. During the sinking on April 15, 1912, the eight men gathered on an upper deck and performed until the end.
“When the ship was going down, it’s reported all eight played together,” Vallis said.
Differing eyewitness reports from the time indicate the band’s final song was either “Nearer, My God, to Thee” or “Songe d’Automne.” Witnesses in lifeboats reported they could hear the music until the ship went under.
“I think (the final song) was Automne based on my research,” Vallis said. “’Nearer My God’ seems too Hollywood. It’s so dramatic, although it was a dramatic moment. But how would they know it was the last song?”
Five of the musicians were from England, and the remaining three hailed from Scotland, Germany and France. Landing such a prestigious gig was tough and mired in disputes between musician unions and the booking agent for White Star Line.
“They were definitely seasoned players, they were the top guys,” Vallis said. “They were probably very determined. There was a lot of politics to get on there.”
Vallis said after the sinking, the shipping company was grimly unsympathetic to the families of the lost musicians. “One family who sought compensation was asked to pay for the suit the musician was wearing. (The company) listed every button on the suit that was lost.”
Songs on the Songs of the Titanic album were recorded from the original Edison wax cylinders used to record music prior to the emergence of disc records in the 1920s. Vallis notes that passengers on the White Star ship had a book of 352 songs to choose from, and the compiled songs are a best guess at what passengers would have heard.
Vallis admits his era of expertise is more from crooners in the 1950s and ‘60s, but he jumped at the chance to research turn-of-the-century band music and the Titanic.
“It’s interesting history. It’s good to set the record as straight as I can,” Vallis said. “Forgetting this old music is forgetting about self expression, about who these people were at the time.”
See www.harkitrecords.com for Songs of the Titanic.