When did Titanic’s bands stop playing?

The main gist of the last few posts has been to explore the likelihood that Titanic’s bands did not perform together as Titanic sank. The performance locations were quite far apart, one at the top of the forward Grand Staircase, and the other on B Deck of the aft Grand Staircase. Most passengers would have heard only one band, or believed there was only one, and therefore referred to the band in singular form, “the band.” This can be misleading.

For example, survivor Washington Dodge said in his account that five musicians had been lost, a sure indication that he did not know there was another band performing on the ship, with a total of eight musicians lost.

The theory the bands played separately could explain why there was conflicting information on when the musicians stopped playing. The present discussion will explore survivor accounts that describe the last moments of performance, in the attempt to explain the approximate time the band(s) stopped playing.

One passenger seems to have heard both bands perform during Titanic’s final hours. A past Titanic Piano post related May Futrelle’s account of the trio’s performance in the restaurant’s Reception Room on B Deck early in the sinking, just after passengers had donned lifebelts.

This post will focus on her experience late in the sinking when she witnessed the launching of lifeboat 4 from the port side of A Deck forward, when Col. Astor placed his wife in it and asked the officer for the boat’s number. It was at this time that Futrelle first noticed the band playing in this area of the ship. It is certain that she heard the five-piece band which was playing in the First Class Entrance Hall at the Boat Deck level of the Grand Staircase, for lifeboat 4 was loaded just one level down and a few feet forward on A Deck.

The fascinating thing about Futrelle is though she clearly heard both bands, she did not pay enough attention to notice that they were different bands. She indicated that the band had moved, an incorrect assumption if the bands performed separately, but added that they now had a piano. Perhaps the fact that she was one level lower on the ship and had no eye contact with the band led her to assume it was the same group of musicians she had heard earlier.

May Futrelle, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April [29?], 1912:

“The orchestra had come out on the boat deck, where there was a piano, at about the time when they launched the fourth boat.”

Although Futrelle mentioned the band had played “out” on the deck, it should be noted that passengers referred to the Boat Deck level of the Grand Staircase as the “deck.” The piano was anchored inside the ship and immobile. Having noted that the band played with the piano at the time lifeboat 4 was launched (approximately 1:55am), her account pinpoints that at this late time the band remained inside the ship.

As one of the last to leave the ship, Futrelle had spent the final hours walking with her husband. After observing the lowering of lifeboat 4 they continued to walk for a few moments, until her husband led her to the last lifeboat to be lowered, Collapsible D, which was lowered from the Boat Deck at 2:05am.

May Futrelle, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April [29?], 1912:

“As we made our way across the deck they were playing ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ – to keep us moving, I suppose. [An] officer picked me up and fairly threw me into the boat.”

It is interesting to note that Futrelle gave accounts of hearing Alexander’s Ragtime Band twice during the sinking: played by the trio early on, and then by the quintet near the end. She went off in Collapsible D, and if she heard Alexander’s Ragtime Band at about 2:05am, it is possible it was the same “ragtime” number Harold Bride heard, but was unable to identify, at the time Captain Smith released the two Marconi operators from duty.

Harold Bride, New York Times, April 28, 1912:

“Then came the captain’s voice: ‘Men you have done your full duty…I release you….’ I looked out. The boat deck was awash. Phillips clung on sending and sending. He clung on for about ten minutes, or maybe fifteen minutes… From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don’t know what.”

Bride’s claim that Phillips kept sending Morse code ten to fifteen minutes after the Captain released them from duty seems to be confirmed by those receiving messages from MGY. Though jumbled and weak, sources say the messages continued to be received until 2:17am.

On recordings Alexander’s Ragtime Band is about two-and-a-half minutes long. With repeats in a live situation musicians could stretch the performance and make it longer. In any case, this was not the final number. According to Bride the band continued to play even after the time Collapsible D was lowered.

Harold Bride, New York Times, April 28, 1912:

“Then there was ‘Autumn.’ Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.”

Futrelle, an American, was able to name the Irving Berlin hit, and Bride, a Brit, was able to identify Archibald Joyce’s Songe d’automne, the hit in his country.

If this is the case the quintet continued performing even after the Marconi operators abandoned their post. Regardless of the exact time by the clock, it can be believed that the quintet’s musicians remained in position within minutes of the final plunge.

Did the band stop 30 minutes before the ship sank?

Survivor accounts do not seem to agree on the timing of the band’s last number. According to Walter Lord, “…Colonel Gracie, on board to the last, said that the band stopped playing about half an hour before the ship sank.  He added that he himself saw the musicians lay down their instruments. Curiously, Gracie did not mention this in his authoritative study The Truth about the Titanic, but he went into some detail in a talk he gave at the University Club in Washington on November 23, 1912.” [If anyone knows a source for Gracie’s speech at the university club, please share where it can be found.]

It is possible that one ensemble set their instruments down a full thirty minutes or more before Titanic sank, but that the other kept playing until it became impossible to do so.

A quick look at the times lifeboats were lowered from the Second Class promenade section of the Boat Deck (starboard and port) shows that they were all put off in quick succession between 1:20am and 1:35am: at 1:20am, boats 9 and 10; at 1:25am, boats 11 and 12; at 1:30am, boats 13 and 14; and at 1:35am, boats 15 and 16.

Once the boats were all gone from this section of the ship it is possible the passengers dispersed, both because they were on boats and because those remaining on the ship sought survival elsewhere. As the trio’s venue was in this aft area of the ship, perhaps they packed it in early in the absence of an audience.

Besides Gracie, another survivor who mentioned that the bandsmen had put down their instruments was A. H. Barkworth, but it is unclear whether he spoke of the same band as Gracie. He made a quick return to cabin A23 after all the lifeboats had gone, and noted that on his way down the Grand Staircase the band was playing a waltz. His trip was cut short because his door was found locked, and upon his return back up the stairs, he saw that the instruments had been abandoned.

If the waltz he heard was the same one Harold Bride heard as water reached the Marconi room (Songe d’automne), how could there have been water at the bridge level, yet A Deck was still dry enough for Barkworth to have returned to his cabin door? Perhaps someone with more technical knowledge can answer this question. Or, perhaps I am wrong to assume that because he went to his door, that the forward First Class A Deck of the ship was dry.

The music tied in with survivor memories testifies that at least one band played well beyond the lowering of the last lifeboat – with a ragtime number positively identified by two, Futrelle and Bride at around the time of the lowering of the last lifeboat, and a waltz identified by two, Barkworth and Bride, after that.

One thing is sure, the quintet performed as long as was humanly possible.

Related Posts

5 thoughts on “When did Titanic’s bands stop playing?

  1. Had musicians lifebelts on? Does any survivor says anything about that? Maybe the situation Barkworth is saying about, is that the musicians gone for the lifebelts and then they came back to play again. But I don't think if there was any way to get to E deck, while the bottom of grand staircase was under water then. In the other hand, they could ask some steward to give them lifebelts. I don't know. That's only my idea. I think, that I remember that someone claimed something about musicians had lifebelts. Or this is the next myth.


  2. Rebekah, do you maybe have this book by Yvonne Hume? Actually, I don't think if I will be able the get the songbooks from the man I said, and as far as I checked, he has only two songbooks, one White Star's from circa 1903, and the other, Cunard's (but I don't know from which year). Maybe you could find some time some day to write a note about what is in this songbook from Hume's book? The things which interests me the most are overtures, selection, waltzes, and marches section. You could write something about what titles appears in this songbook which doesn't appear in the \”old one\”. The titles which interests me the most are popular musicals and light operas in \”selections\” and ragtimes in \”cakewalk, marches\”.


  3. Three musicians' bodies were recovered from the debris field with lifebelts on: Hartley, Hume and Clarke. Several posts back there were two stewardesses who mentioned seeing musicians performing with lifebelts in front of them. It is unlikely the musicians returned to their cabins for lifebelts for the reason you mention – their cabins were at risk for being under water. If they did leave their instruments for a time it is more likely that they took a smoke break. I've wondered and wondered about Barkworth's statement, but both times he told that story he specified that it was after the lifeboats had gone, after 2:05am.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.