It is probably the best known maritime tragedy in history. The RMS Titanic, the largest passnger ship afloat and pride of the White Star Line, was three days out of Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York City when it collided with an iceberg and sank. Of the 2223 passengers and crew, fully 1517 of them were drowned, largely due to an insufficiency of lifeboats.
It’s a matter of historical record that the eight members of the ship’s band continued to play as the ship sank, in a feat of gallantry intended to keep spirits high. All eight of these men died in the sinking. Debate has raged over what their final song was. Some claimed that is was ‘Autumn’, others that it was ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. The debate is further complicated by the fact that ‘Autumn’ could have referred to either hymn tune known as “Autumn” or the tune of the then-popular waltz “Songe d’Automne” (although neither of these tunes were included in the White Star Line songbook). Similarly, there are two arrangements of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, one popular in Britain and the other in America (and the British one sounds not unlike ‘Autumn’) – and a third arrangement was found in the personal effects of band leader’s fiance.
One of the defining events of its era, the assassination of President Kennedy remains a remarkably controversial one, even today. Conspiracy theories abound as to who shot Kennedy and why.
While the official story, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it, with the rifle, in the book depository, is plausible, it is also notably incomplete – there are any number of holes and anomalies in it. The murder of Oswald only two days later, before he could stand trial, has done nothing to quell these uncertainties.
On a symbolic level, the death of Kennedy was the end of an era in many ways. Quite aside from the idealism that he brought to the nation, his death marked a change in the way America saw itself – no longer the lily-white paladin, but more the grim avenger willing do the dirty work no one else would – although in fairness, this change of self-image would take the rest of the decade to be complete.
Gene Seski was an experienced truck driver who, on the 18th of March, 1965, was driving a semi-trailer load of bananas from the piers in New Jersey to the town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. His chosen route was Rt. 307, a long, slow descent that winds for two miles into Scranton. It features a section in which, over the course of a single mile, the road drops 500 feet in elevation.
For reasons unknown, Seski lost control of his vehicle. It was traveling at about 90 miles an hour when this happened, and the combination of the truck’s momentum and the downhill slope ensured that it traveled a considerable distance before it came to rest at the corner of Moosic St and S. Irving Ave. Seski did not survive the crash, and the thirty thousand pounds of bananas were scattered all about the vicinity, many of them smeared to a paste.
Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, after years of non-violent struggle for civil rights. By 1967, he was moving on from that. While it remained an important part of his goals, he had also become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and in 1967 established the Poor People’s Campaign – both of which reflected an approach to social justice that was increasingly based on class rather than race.
King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the balcony of his hotel. A single shot fired by James Earl Ray caused a remarkable amount of damage, and although King was raced to a nearby hospital by his friends, the doctors were unable to save him. His death led to riots in many American cities (other than Indianapolis, where Bobby Kennedy made one of the greatest speeches of his career, and found his plea for cooler heads heeded), and a national day of mourning was declared by the President.
Woodstock Music & Art Fair (informally, Woodstock or The Woodstock Festival) was a music festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition”, held from August 15 to August 18, 1969, at a dairy farm belonging to a Max Yasgur in the rural town of Bethel, New York. Bethel, in Sullivan County, is actually 43 miles (69 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock, after being turned down from its original venue.
Thirty-two acts – inlcuding Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead – performed during the sometimes rainy weekend in front of nearly half a million concertgoers – the organisers had expected only 50,000. Woodstock has come to be seen as one of the high water marks of the hippie movement, and it is sometimes regarded as marking the end of the Sixties.
One imagines that the various acts who were invited but did not attend (those still alive, at any rate) – including the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan – probably still regret it.
On the morning of June 17, 1972, a young journalist named Bob Woodward was working the court beat in Washington DC. It was a pretty dull assignment for the most part, until that day, when five men – Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis – were arraigned for a burglary at the Watergate Complex, which housed the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The five men were operatives in the pay of the Nixon government, and the most notorious scandal in United States political history was only beginning. By the time it was over, Woodward and his co-writer Bernstein would be household names, as would their informant, known for more than two decades by no other name than the alias of Deep Throat. Moreover, Nixon would resign in disgrace, and numerous members of his government would wind up facing criminal charges for their participation in the burglary, the cover-up that followed, and any number of other such dirty tricks that the Nixon White House, which referred to these activities as “ratfucking”, was wont to engage in.
After the long, slow death of a thousand cuts that was the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s decision to resign from the Presidency – even in disgrace – must have come as something of a relief to him. Starting with the Watergate break-in, on June 17, 1972, which led to the revelation of the Nixon administration’s dirty tricks squad – and getting worse and worse as the attempted cover-up ballooned and failed.
Nixon fought, though. He fought as hard as could, as long as he could – for more than two years. But in the end, his only remaining choice was to leave on his own terms before he was forced out. The pardon that his hand-picked successor gave him – which was for all crimes including those yet to be discovered – was no doubt also a consideration.
Born on December 19, 1940, Phil Ochs would become one of the best known protest singers in America (although he himself preferred the descriptor ‘topical singer’). He had his roots in the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the early Sixties. Although he never achieved the commercial success of some of his contemporaries, such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, he was an influential composer. His song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” was a popular rallying cry of anti-Vietnam War protests, and was even once broadcast on the news by Walter Cronkite.
Ochs’ life took a turn for the worse in the Seventies. His troubles with bipolar disorder and alcoholism grew worse, and his behaviour grew paranoid and erratic. Ochs hanged himself on April 9, 1976, bitter and disillusioned by the Nixon era and the assassinations of 1968.
Somewhere in the afterlife, Harry Foster Chapin is playing a screamingly funny, posthumously written song regarding his own death. Which he co-wrote with James Joyce.
Harry Chapin was an American folk singer, probably best known for songs like Taxi, W*O*L*D and 30,000 Pounds of Bananas. He is also the writer and original performer of Cats in the Cradle – not, as is often claimed, Cat Stevens. Chapin was a poet of the everyday, chronicling the hopes and fears, the failures and the triumphs, of Anytown, USA. His nuanced work remains an excellent anodyne to the more saccharine visions of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. He also wrote possibly the funniest song ever to describe a real fatal road accident (the afore-mentioned 30,000 Pounds of Bananas).
He was also a fierce idealist, working on the boards of many charities, and donating an estimated third of all his concert earnings to various charitable causes. He was particularly active in supporting the arts, and in the fight against poverty and hunger.
Chapin died in a car accident that was most likely caused by him suffering a heart attack behind the wheel. He was only 38 years old.
The world is poorer for his passing.