I'm in the Danceband on the Titanic
Singing "Nearer My God to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me?

Dance Band on the Titanic is an epic double album by Harry Chapin, released in 1977 on the Elektra/Asylum label. The songs on the album vary wildly in terms of their quality, and if you don't like Chapin to begin with there's plenty here to take issue with: stock vocal harmonies, occasional over-orchestration, and embarressingly sentimental lyrics. However, at its best Danceband is moving, memorable, and exhuberantly bitter. Chapin sings the title song of the album from the perspective of the frontman of the actual danceband on the Titanic, which according to some reports was been asked to play the gospel song "Nearer my God to Thee" as the ship sank, with 1500 people on board. The song "Danceband on the Titanic" was later rereleased on Chapin's The Gold Medal Collection (1988) and Story of a Life (1999). The cover art for Danceband depicts a suitcase floating in icy water, and on top of it a black and white photograph of the danceband on the Titanic, in a broken frame. On the inner sleeve there is a black and white photograph of Chapin's face, viewed underwater, outside of a porthole. Of course, Chapin's early death doesn't make this photograph any easier to look at. I found this record in a Sale bin in the basement of New York City's Generation Records. It was dirty but mostly unscratched, its sleeve was ripped, and it cost me 99 cents.

In singing the story-songs of Danceband Chapin adopts many roles, but the two that recur most often are those of the cuckold and of the suit, sometimes but not always combined into one person. He's clearly baffled by women, insofar as they treat him as a man and not as a human being. And yet, this confusion is never transmuted into misogynism, to the contrary, the album expresses some of the most honest and bawdy feminism I have ever heard from a male singer-songwriter. For instance, the song "Mercenaries', while it had effectively been written earlier and better as "Pleasures of the Harbor" by Phil Ochs, earns my stamp of approval for bothering to explicitly mention a prostitute faking an orgasm. The songs often enumerate the painfully quotidien details of disfunctional relationships and tragically unfulfilling employment, both of which serve as receptacles for a procession of timelessly foolish dreams. A few of these songs do bog down in mawkishness, particularly those that fall on the side of love instead of against it. One of these is "I Do it for you Jane", which was co-written with Harry's wife Sandy Chapin. "One Light in a Dark Valley (An Imitation Spiritual)", by Chapin's grandfather Kenneth Burke, is similarly naive, however it works fine within the context of its genre.

On a few occassions, Chapin redeems himself from the role of the obtuse suburban bowler-hatted man and describes what he really loves: music. For instance, the insanely catchy "Bluesman" depicts a child's evolution into a musician. And yet, Chapin's musical occupation is plagued with doubt and so when he sings about what he does he cannot remain celebratory for long. The album's closing track is the heartbreaking and sharply eloquent "There Only Was One Choice", which has me near tears at every listening. This song encompasses all of the paradoxes inherent within a famous folk musician ingraining himself towards the music world while still pretending to be politically efficacious. At about 20 minutes long, the song is a cruel and ambivalent eulogy for American idealism. A sarcastic musical quote from the album's first track recapitulates Chapin's original obsession the macabre spectacle of grim musicians playing their way into the grave.

Tracklist: Credits:

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