Gordon Lightfoot's 'Edmund Fitzgerald:' Lyrics And Story Of The Real Wreck
Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 single "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" sounds like an ancient mariner's lament -- chalk that up to Lightfoot's somber vocals. But did you know there really was a vessel called the Edmund Fitzgerald? She was a massive ship that sank in Lake Superior just a year earlier, a tragic event that inspired one of the heaviest pop hits of the '70s. Despite its depressing subject and dirge-like sound, Lightfoot's song ascended to the #2 spot on the Billboard chart
It’s not always necessary to learn about a historic event through an academic textbook. Sometimes the past can be learned through music, which is likely the more enjoyable learning method for most. While many of the greatest songs of all time involve fictitious tales about fantasy, love, and adventure, some can also teach us about legitimate history. This is the case with Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot who used his own words to tell the story of the tragic sinking of freight ship SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior through his ominous tune “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” Although there were a few faults to the song’s details, Lightfoot’s hit song pulled at the world’s emotions by singing about the heartbreaking night in November 1975.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald Broke All The Records
The ill-fated SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a freight ship of incredible magnitude that carried cargo throughout North America’s Great Lakes. At the time she was first launched in 1958, she was the largest ship in the Great Lakes at 729 feet in length, 39 feet in height, and 13,632 tons in weight. Edmund Fitzgerald was also praised for her lightning-fast speed and could transfer loads from one side of the lakes to the other quicker than any other of the ships. The monstrous ship broke all of the records for the amount of weight it could carry, and then kept breaking its own records. Similar to the Titanic, it certainly seemed the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was indestructible and unsinkable.
An Unexpected Storm Destroyed The Ship
November was considered “The Month Of The Storms” on the Great Lakes and the most dangerous time to ship loads. That did not stop the crew of SS Edmund Fitzgerald who departed from Superior, Wisconsin to take a cargo load of ore pellets 746 miles to Detroit, Michigan on November 9th, 1975. The next day, a horrific storm struck the waters with winds over 60mph and waves over ten feet tall. Captain Ernest M. McSorley, who was planning to retire after the year, radioed for help, but the crews were unable to put their own lives in danger to rescue the ship. That night, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank along with her entire crew of 29 people just 17 miles away from Whitefish Bay, Michigan. The mystery still remains today exactly what caused the ship’s sinking, but the well-accepted theory is that massive waves overtook her and broke her into two pieces.
Gordon Lightfoot Is One Of Canada’s Finest Musicians
Canada has produced some of the greatest musicians in history from Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Randy Bachman, The Band, and one of their most acclaimed acts Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot began his musical endeavors playing in heaps of local bands in Toronto, moved to Los Angeles to write commercial jingles, and then returned to his homeland in 1962 and hopped aboard the booming folk scene. Lightfoot became a recognized singer when he released his debut album Lightfoot! in 1966 and released his first hit “If You Could Read My Mind” with Warner Bros/Reprise, which went on to sell over a million copies and transformed Lightfoot into an international star.
Lightfoot Honored The Lost Crew With A Story Song
As a Canadian, the devastation of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald hit too close to home for Lightfoot. After reading an article about the catastrophe in Newsweek Magazine, he felt inspired to immortalize the event in a song using an Irish folk melody he had been working on. The was the somber tune “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” for his album Summertime Dream released in June 1976. The grim song features haunting rifts that capture the emotional toll of the event making listeners around the globe feel like the 29 lost were their own loved ones. Even during the recording process in December 1975, Lightfoot created a morbid atmosphere when he asked for all the lights to be turned off except the one lighting his song sheets. As the song soared throughout the charts hitting no.1 in Canada and no.2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and getting nominated for 2 Grammys, the ship was forever remembered throughout the world.
The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald Was Not 100% Accurate
Lightfoot tried his absolute best to tell an entirely accurate story in his tune, so much that he stressed himself out and delayed the release. Producer Lenny Waronker advised Lightfoot to just write a story and quit worrying about perfection. Before the days of Google and Wikipedia, it was much more difficult to get every detail exactly correct, so naturally the song contains a few mistakes. Lightfoot says the Edmund Fitzgerald was on route to Cleveland, when the destination was Detroit. The Mariners Church of Detroit is referred to as “The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.” However, Lightfoot was humble enough to admit his inaccuracies as they were realized with time so he modified the lyrics during concerts throughout the years. A member of the Mariners Church was also offended Lightfoot referred to the church as “a musty old hall” so during live performances he would sing “rustic old hall.”
The song also mentions a hatchway that caved in led to the sinking, but National Geographic Channel’s TV show Dive Detectives hypothesized that the three giant waves (called The Three Sisters) swamped the ship and sank it to the bottom of the sea. This discovery relieved the families of the crew members who were in charge of the hatches as they spent years believing the sinking was their own loved ones’ faults. Instead of singing, "At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in, he said, 'Fellas, it's been good to know ya,” Lightfoot would change the lyrics to, "At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said, 'Fellas it's been good to know ya."
'The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald' Lyrics
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
T'was the witch of November come stealin'
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin'
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'
"Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya"
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said
"Fellas, it's been good to know ya"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors' cathedral
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early