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The Debunker: Did the Band Play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the Titanic Sank?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that September is National Preparedness Month? The catchy government slogan is "Be disaster aware! Take action to prepare!" But how disaster-aware are we really? Lots of the things we know about life's worst calamities are actually wrong--and in some cases, dangerously so. Luckily, Ken Jennings, Jeopardy! survivor and professional know-it-all, is here to set us straight. Because what could be more disastrous than ignorance? Well, maybe a big volcano. Ignorance, and also a big volcano.

The Debunker: Did the Band Play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the Titanic Sank?

More than 1,500 people lost their lives on April 15, 1912 when the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. Among them were all eight of the ship's on-board musicians, who normally played in a quintet and trio, respectively. Many, many survivor accounts attests that some or all of these musicians kept playing at the top of the Titanic's grand staircase as the ship gradually lowered into the sea, in an attempt to keep passengers calm during the evacuation.


In the most popular retellings of the Titanic story, like the book and film A Night to Remember and, later, James Cameron's Titanic, the band ends its final performance by playing the popular funeral hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee." Interestingly, the two films use different tunes for the hymn, which actually had three different settings in use at the time: one in America, one in the Church of England, and one preferred by British Methodists. So there was no single version of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" that the ship's passengers would have universally recognized.

And yet, the story spread soon after the tragedy that the band members had been playing the hymn as they went to their watery graves. Many of these accounts were written long after the story had already entered Titanic lore-- and sold thousands of postcards and other ephemera that used the hymn's lyrics to commemorate the sinking --and I suspect they were not 100 percent reliable. The first survivor to mention the hymn was a Mrs. Vera Dick of Canada-- but she had been evacuated over an hour earlier, and was listening to "faint" music from her lifeboat. Her memories might also have been colored by the greatest tragedy in recent Canadian maritime history, the 1906 sinking of the SS Valencia, in which the passengers had famously spent their last minutes singing "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

Radioman Harold Bride, in the most detailed account given to the New York Times when the survivors arrived in New York, definitively identified the last song as "Autumn." Since other survivors said the band playing ragtime and dance music throughout, Bride probably meant "Songe d'Automne," a popular dance-hall waltz in 1912. Some writers have noted that the waltz's melodic similarities to "Nearer, My God, to Thee," combined with memories of the Valencia sinking, may have convinced some passengers that the band was playing hymns. We'll never be completely sure, but most Titanic experts suspect that the band never played their most famous hit at all.

Quick Quiz: "Nearer, My God, to Thee" is a hymn that recounts what biblical figure's famous dream about a ladder to heaven?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.