Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Friday Forgotten Song: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot

For those of us around when the country celebrated its bicentennial, it was an extraordinary time. That it landed in the midst of a momentous, and not necessarily pleasant, decade is perhaps fitting. Not only did we have the 200th anniversary of the 1776 adoption of the United States of America Declaration of Independence from England, it was also an Olympic (Montreal, Canada) and Presidential election (Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford) year. And those are just the good parts1.

I know I’m being flippant when I needn’t be. The other choice parts stemmed from the music this turbulent decade manifested. As with the cinema of this period, it stood out. And I’ve been reminded2 of one exceptional tune of the period, a song that in fact has reached its 45th anniversary this year. One by a noted figure still singing and leaving his mark with listeners to this day.

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr. has had a remarkable career as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. No doubt, this Canadian helped define the folk-pop of the ’60s and ’70s. Pop music fans my age will instantly recall their whereabouts when you list his chart hits: “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970), “Sundown” (1974), “Carefree Highway” (1974), and “Rainy Day People” (1975). On the country side, “For Lovin’ Me”, “Early Morning Rain”, “Steel Rail Blues”, and “Ribbon of Darkness” come to mind. Yet…

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

…I daresay no matter what music genre is your preferred, the song he’s most known for, though it came close but never topped the U.S.3 charts, was the one released in 1976, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A beautifully haunting ballad by this renowned artist moored to memory than any of his others. The echoey opening guitar chords made that quite apparent at the start. And the fact that it commemorated a tragic event the songwriter just couldn’t let history slip by4.

The sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald5 on Lake Superior that killed all 29 crew members on 10 November 1975.

His website makes it pretty clear where the ballad berthed on his Summertime Dream album lands in his repertoire:

“Lightfoot wrote the song as a tribute to the ship, the sea, and the men who lost their lives that night. When asked recently what he thought his most significant contribution to music was, he said it was this song, which he often refers to as “The Wreck”. In spite of its unlikely subject matter, the song climbed to #2 on the Billboard pop charts and remains one the most stirring topical ballads ever written, and a highlight of every Lightfoot concert.”

“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

Though The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald reaffirms author Ernest Hemingway’s quote, it’s how Gordon Lightfoot composed and performed the story that elevated it beyond this. While many popular songs can be clever in their phrasing, it is rarer still to have the song’s vernacular equally heartfelt in its rendering. That’s what you have with this and the storyteller telling it. Especially, by the time he reaches this passage, which still cuts me to the core whenever I hear Gordon lay it down:

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes, When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

The legendary Canadian artist captured something quite special in this commemorative folk serenade that rings eerily and profoundly poignant to this day. Breathing life into tragedy in a singular tone few can muster, or even care to fathom. Citing the area’s history and people while lamenting the lore with those who found a calling upon those waters. It’s a remarkable tale that gave credence to it all in unfeigned lyrics. And one Gordon Lightfoot, and yes me, thought shouldn’t be forgotten.

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 crew 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 t'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 searches 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 till 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 call 'gitche gumee'
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

  1. We also had terrorism attacks (Entebbe), school mass shooting (Fullerton, California), and the Ebola virus made its debut in Zaire. As I’ve said before, “Hey, it was the ’70s.” 
  2. Good friend Richard Kirkham did so a few years ago, but it took me longer than expected to get to this. 
  3. “On November 14th, 1976, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot peaked at #2 {for 2 weeks} on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, for the two weeks it was at #2, the #1 record for both those weeks was “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)” by Rod Stewart.” ~ Songfacts 
  4. “The inspiration was a Newsweek article about the wreck. These sorts of things have happened on the Great Lakes for many years, and I thought I had another shipwreck song in me after having done ‘Marie Christine’ years before. I’m proud it’s been written. It’s been a very educational and interesting experience, for sure. I have gotten to meet a lot of the people who were related to the men on the Edmund Fitzgerald; periodically they have functions, which I attend whenever I can. It’s been a real-life experience for me.” 
  5. The ship was 729 feet long, 35 feet high, and had a deadweight capacity of 26,000 long tons; she was loaded with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad, Dock #1, and her destination was Zug Island on the Detroit River. 

3 Responses to “Friday Forgotten Song: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot”

  1. johnrieber

    Here’s a story for you. When I went to Jackson Mississippi a few years ago, I stayed at a legendary hotel there…an elderly African-American janitor was slowly sweeping the lobby…he must have been 80 years old…and while he worked, he was softly singing this song…I’ve never forgotten that

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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