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Gordon Lightfoot's 'Edmund Fitzgerald:' Lyrics And Story Of The Real Wreck

Music | November 9, 2020

Left: The Edmund Fitzgerald. Right: Canadian folk-rock singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot sings and plays acoustic guitar for the television concert series, 'Midnight Special,' 1970s. Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Getty Images

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

Source: Den of Geek

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

Source: Pinterest

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

Source: Pinterest

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

Source: Pinterest

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

Source: Toronto Star

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

Source: Yahoo

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.”

Source: Pinterest

  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

Source: Twitter

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

Tags: Disasters | Gordon Lightfoot | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.