Throughout our lives, we hear many different words and phrases that seem to take hold in our everyday vocabulary. As a journalist, I have a great interest in phrases, words and their origins. This began with one of my favorite albums from my high school years.
I was a senior in high school when Tom Petty released his LP Damn the Torpedoes. I loved the phrase and often wondered why Petty hadn’t included a song track of the same name on the album. I listened intently, but nothing really sounded at all like the phrase, “Damn the torpedoes.” I must admit that I was more than a little disappointed, especially because I used to often confide in my father that album tracks should always reflect the album title. It made more sense to my editorial mind. Nonetheless, I really loved the phrase.
For years, I wondered about why Petty used the phrase for his LP, but never had the time to do the research. Life had become life, and as we often do, I became involved with work, a home, a family. I purchased a CD of Damn the Torpedoes and played it a few times when I was alone, especially since our daughter made requests for her own genre of music when she rode with us. Tom Petty and his electric smile found his way into the console of my vehicle, only to be listened to on rare occasions.
Last week, I searched for an interesting meme to post on Instagram. I found an old black and white photograph of an etching in stone with the phrase, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” The person credited with the quote was David Glasgow Farragut, who was a flag officer in the US Navy during the American Civil War. Until that search, I’d always believed that Tom Petty was responsible for the quote. Please forgive my ignorance, ha-ha.
After a bit of research, I found that the quote had been misquoted. While multiple versions exist of what Admiral Farragut stated during the Battle of Mobile Bay in Alabama, the closest one to the truth appears to be, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” For those interested in naval history, one bell meant to go ahead, two bells meant to stop, three bells meant to go back and four bells meant to go ahead as quickly as possible.
Several articles appeared in two separate magazines in 1881, where Farragut had been quoted as also shouting at the height of battle, “Four bells, eight bells, SIXTEEN bells! Give her all the steam you’ve got!” This was also a slight misquote, as Thom Williamson, the ship’s chief engineer, stated that he asked Farragut himself how many bells to ring. Farragut answered sharply, “Four bells—eight bells—SIXTEEN bells—damn it, I don’t care how many bells you ring!” It sounds like creative license may have been taken to give the phrase a bit more “umph.”
And now, back to the music.
Tom Petty, a Southern boy who refused to be “bought and sold like a piece of meat,” had threatened to shelve his band’s album, Damn the Torpedoes. MCA, the label he signed with, threatened to confiscate Petty’s session tapes with his band The Heartbreakers. Petty filed for bankruptcy after having a studio assistant hide his tapes in secret locations so nobody could find them. This brave move opened Petty’s contracts up to renegotiation and showed the label he wasn’t backing down. (For the record, that’s my favorite Petty tune.) MCA caved and subsequently gave Petty back all publishing rights. This victory, coupled with the release of the album on the day before Petty’s 29th birthday, made the title of the album very appropriate.
The phrase, “Damn the torpedoes,” which are the immortal words associated with Farragut’s Union victory at Mobile Bay over the Confederate naval force, means to press on with a task or one’s current course of action, regardless of any risk or danger. Although history cannot afford us the actual quotation by Admiral Farragut, the phrase has a meaningful strength and presence. While we should never press forward recklessly, it may behoove us to get ourselves “unstuck” on occasion and take some well calculated risks. This may take us out of our comfort zone but may also enable new light to be shed on old circumstances. May we all “damn the torpedoes” with discernment and grace when we need a bit of new energy to add a bit of sunshine to our own lives as well as the lives of others.
Patty Servidio is an Anton Media Group columnist.