The shock was felt around the world after the April 15, 1912, sinking of the Titanic.
“Many hearts are filled with anguish and with pain.”
Everyone had heard it was indestructible.
“And our nation now is wrapped in deepest mourning.”
So many loved ones, 1,514 people, perished; yet 710 were saved.
“For the heroes of the Titanic.”
So begins “The Titanic Disaster,” a song written by sisters Gertrude and Agnes Hartman of Steamboat Rock, Iowa, that was copyrighted on May 13, 1912, just four weeks later. It was, indeed, a tragic time even in Iowa.
Gertrude, 19 at the time, wrote the lyrics. Agnes, 14, composed the music. And Agnes’ daughter, Bonnie Bleeker of Iowa City recalls her mother talking about the Titanic.
“She didn’t make it any more sad than I could handle,” says Bonnie, 78.
Yet, there was no denying that Bonnie understood the emotional impact of so many deaths.
By then, newspapers carried widely varied accounts of the Titanic hitting an iceberg. And, in no time, people were writing and publishing poetry. Companies cashed in by issuing commemorative memorabilia from candy tins to a black mourning teddy bear. Soon, some survivors even published books.
Gertrude and Agnes had no intention of trying to cash in. Their father, Bill Hartman, a blacksmith, paid to have their song published. Only a few copies were printed for family and friends.
Bonnie has held on to several copies, many of them tattered, torn and taped together because the pages have been turned so many times.
“I’ve played it for friends at parties,” Bonnie says. “For people to sing. And for my own entertainment.”
Bonnie couldn’t play it for me on her piano because she broke her left wrist not long ago. But she did sing a couple verses of her mother’s song.
“She did her own music, then she incorporated “Nearer My God to Thee” in it because that’s what they played when they were leaving the ship, and then she went back to her own music,” Bonnie says.
Agnes loved music and it rubbed off on Bonnie who took piano lessons from her mother and has been a tap dancer all of her life. In fact, Agnes’ second husband, Roy Glaze, had an orchestra in which she sang and played the violin.
“They’d bring all of their music stands to our house and practice,” Bonnie says. “I just loved it.”
The music for “The Titanic Disaster” was a different story.
Agnes died in 1960 at age 62. Her sister had died six years earlier. Did they write anything more than “The Titanic Disaster?”
“No, not that I know of,” Bonnie says. “They were just so impressed with the Titanic.”
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