J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Titanic – Band of Courage: That was a Tough Gig

Conservatory-trained Roger Marie Bricoux’s first ocean-liner gig was on the RMS Carpathia, which is best remembered for saving survivors of the RMS Titanic, which happened to be his last seafaring job, for obvious reasons. Considered paragons of the “show must go on” ethos, the dignity and tragic irony of the Titanic musicians’ lives are chronicled in Titanic—Band of Courage (promo here), a PBS special airing in select markets around the country over the next two weeks or so.

Sadly, none of the Titanic band-members lived to gig again. As most everyone knows, there was that whole business with an iceberg and an awkward lifeboat shortage. Matters could have gotten really ugly, but the musicians started playing to calm the passengers’ nerves. According to survivors, it really worked.

The night to remember offers no shortage of drama, but for viewers who are not Titanic junkies, Band of Courage also offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of working musicians during the late Edwardian era. Essentially straddling the lower middle class and upper working class, the ocean liner musicians were required to be proficient in a variety of styles, including operetta, light classical, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley. They had to be polished enough to withstand the shallow criticism of bored patrons and charismatic enough to earn their tip money. Scottish violinist John Law Hume was a natural in that respect.

Technically, there were two Titanic ensembles: a quintet and a string trio. Reportedly, they only played together on that fateful night, but they shared a common repertoire, collected and conveniently numbered in the Titanic songbook. To give viewers a sense of their sound, a contemporary septet (a piano and six strings) performs each song under discussion as various talking heads weigh in, most notably including Hume’s grandson (whom he never met) and Steve Turner, the author of The Band that Played On.

Musicians and their friends will be particularly fascinating by the details of the ocean liner musicians’ working lives during the Gilded Age. Evidently, the agents handling the White Star Line’s exclusive bookings were not especially ethical or compassionate, suggesting some things in show business never change. Frankly, viewers are likely to conclude the eight musicians in question were not well served by their somewhat cartoonish portrayal in the bloated Cameron Oscar-winner. Interesting from both a musical and historical perspective, Band of Courage comes with convenient places to put pledge breaks, so do not be surprised if someone interrupts the broadcast to ask you for money.  Recommended for fans of string music and the infamously unsinkable ocean liner, Titanic—Band of Courage airs on participating PBS stations throughout the March 1-16 window.

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