Liturgy and the Dance Band on the Titanic

I’m in the dance band on the Titanic
Sing “Nearer, my God, to Thee”
The iceberg’s on the starboard bow
Won’t you dance with me.

                  ∼ Harry Chapin, 1977

Back in the late 1970s, when I was an impressionable young lad, I was introduced to the songwriting of the late Harry Chapin, of “Cat’s in the Cradle” fame, whose way-longer-than-top-40 original story songs left an indelible mark on my own pursuit of songwriting. It was also the same era in which I began what remains a lifelong involvement in liturgical music ministry.

Chapin’s tour-de-force double album of 1977, “Dance Band on the Titanic,” had a title song that told the story of the sinking ship from the imagined perspective of the band’s guitarist, “strumming as the ship goes down.” Before the universe went “crash!” he hears the lookout say, “There’s icebergs around, but still everything’s all right.”

Forty years later, I find this irony-filled song to be a source of reflection on—of all things—the meaning and purpose of Catholic liturgy and liturgical music as we’ve experienced it in that same time.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
Chapin’s ironic lyric was built upon his own premise that his 1970s-era socio-political surroundings were dooming the country, while the passengers of the sinking ship were partying and dancing the night away to the feel-good tunes of a band deflecting attention away from the death-dealing horror that awaited them.

His take on the musical distraction of the Titanic’s dance band leapt into my mind as I recently began pondering the relationship between sacred liturgical music today and the massive patrimony of sacred liturgical music the Roman Rite possesses from long centuries of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Before all else—before pondering questions of musical taste, musical style, whether music is really true-good-beautiful (or not), whether “contemporary” and culturally-based sacred music sufficiently resembles the distinctive music of the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), whether we fully appreciate the uneven history of the Church’s long, long struggle to maintain its distinctive musical form (hint: it’s a history that is wayyyy more than fifty or sixty years old)—before all this, all of which are topics worthy of exploration, there is a simple, core question that must be addressed.

Are We Doing What We’re Called to Do?
Specifically: What is the desired effect of sacred liturgical music upon the faithful?

That is the truly “catholic” (universal) question that should be asked of every liturgical musical form found in every rite—Roman or not—that exists within the Catholic Church. This question transcends all the liturgy wars, all the human aspects of musical likes and dislikes, and gets to the “Titanic” example we started with.

Is the desired effect of liturgical music to pull us out of reality and into an aurally-induced diversion away from our various trials and tribulations, such that we experience a sort of emotional “high” that helps us feel better—perhaps even really good—for that short time on Sunday that we gather as God’s people?

Put another way, is our musical experience at Mass intended to be a means of self-medication, in which we seek to treat the often-painful symptoms of our spiritual sojourn via musical forms that grab our attention and move us away from our troubles toward a temporary emotional solace that itself generally ends with the Mass’s dismissal?

Chapin’s “Dance Band on the Titanic” seems to be, to a large degree, built on this approach—no one wants to think about freezing to death in a few minutes as you are cast into the ocean from the fractured decks of a sinking behemoth that, Chapin tells us, “even God couldn’t sink!” Better play some music that will, at least for the moment, preserve everyone from contemplating the reality of their situation.

Move Along, Nothing to See Here…
On a related practical level, there also may be a utilitarian “pseudo-prudence” at work in the decision to rely upon musical distraction during a time of intense communal crisis—it becomes a form of “crowd control.” The opiate effect of both calm-inducing and pleasure-inducing music is much the same. It avoids global panic. It keeps a veneer of order and peace and “process” in place. No one has to act brashly or boldly. No prophets nor heroes need emerge from this placid pool of mutual musical amnesia.

Instead, we all collectively agree that, well, if there’s such soothing music playing, things really aren’t nearly as bad as we originally thought, right? All must be well!

Unfortunately, there is one diabolically horrific example of such an application in living memory. In Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, as trainloads of war-weary victims would unload for their “processing,” the monstrous architects of the “Final Solution” used live classical music—typically played by fellow Jewish victims (see the account of the “Violins of Hope”) right near the train tracks—to create a false sense of security and calm among those who typically were mere minutes away from dying in the gas chambers.

Whether in a concentration camp, on the decks of the Titanic, or at the edge of our Church’s sanctuaries, we demean both our own dignity and the dignity and beauty of music itself whenever we bastardize music such that it functions as a tool of distraction or as a feel-good drug that masks truth and reality.

“Why” and “How”—Keeping It Real
It’s time now to answer the question of the fundamental purpose of sacred music with the real answer.

As much as I might appreciate Chapin’s artistry, I really think he has misapplied the image of the “Dance Band on the Titanic.” If those heroic band members were merely staying at their post for the shallow reasons noted above, I’d have to conclude that there was really very little dignity attached to their choice. But I actually believe the “Dance Band” image is one we liturgical musicians really can turn to as an example of what to do, rather than what not to do.

Two key factors present themselves, and both are vital—what was the intent of the musicians, and how did the hearers “receive” what they were hearing? This is applicable in our own parishes just as much as it was on that fateful night at sea in 1912.

Given that “Nearer My God to Thee” was identified by many as the song being played as the ship went down, it would seem that much more was on the minds of the band members than mere distraction and crowd control. (The other song some survivors said they heard, which was in the “Titanic” band’s playbook, was “Song D’Automne,” a minor-key tune that also seems eerily fitting at that tragic moment.) Rather, the music they played that fateful night was intended to accentuate the reality of what they were confronting, rather than take away from it.

Gethsemane and Golgotha—Through, Not Around
In accepting the reality of their situation, and not in any way denying it, those musicians were bringing an even deeper sense of sobriety to the crosses being borne by every passenger on that dying ship—including their own. Their choice not to panic was not utilitarian, but done out of love of God and neighbor. They applied their God-given musical gifts in a way that could do the most good in the terrifying truth they were facing. This was a moment of truth, not a denial of it.

Through this understanding of their sacrifice of self, we liturgical musicians can take not only inspiration, but also instruction. We need to examine our own motivations and intentions—do we serve as liturgical musicians to merely evoke in others a certain shallow sense of emotional security—a “feeling” of well-being—precisely because it feels good? Or do we participate in the Paschal Mystery itself by always acknowledging the truth and reality of our crosses?

Is our music truly sober and serene and fitting? Do we let our voices and instruments arrive at the Empty Tomb by way of Gethsemane and Golgotha instead of taking detours around them? I can guarantee that, for example, no one would remember the Titanic’s band as truly heroic if they had chosen to play “Moonlight Bay” instead of “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Along with our own intentions, then, does the music we choose possess its own integrity and sobriety such that it can truly be heard by others in the manner in which we intend? The “vehicle” of music must be intrinsically capable of touching the human heart and soul in the way we musicians rightly intend. Both music and lyric must be able to accomplish this. The sobriety we seek does not come at the expense of joy—rather, the joy we seek must include sobriety, it must be immersed in reality, or it descends into mere sentimentality and, worse, superficial frivolity.

“Correct Effect” First, Then “Right Rite”
If and only if this crucial question is answered correctly, then we can proceed to ask other important questions. For example, does the music I’m employing align with and at barest minimum do no harm to the integrity of the distinctive music of whatever “rite” I represent within the Catholic Church (e.g., Roman Rite)? Getting the “rite” right, so to speak, will only make sense if we are first getting the “effect” correct.

Based on lived experience, I’m certain we all can attest to the fact that we have a long voyage ahead and many more icebergs to avoid, if we are to more vividly restore sobriety and “reality” to our liturgical music. But we have no choice—it’s what we are called to do. We can’t let our efforts serve merely as distractions from the grave challenges we face in stormy seas as we sail aboard the only truly “unsinkable” ship ever known to man—the Barque of Peter.

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

 …There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
All that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Editor’s note: Above is a detail from “The Adoration of the Magi” painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494).

Deacon Jim Russell

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Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective.

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