There’s no doubt that Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” helped keep the story of the doomed American ore carrier alive since it fell apart in Lake Superior during stormy weather on Nov. 10, 1975.
Twenty-nine men lost their lives in the wreck in Canadian waters after fighting 80-mph winds and 25-foot waves. The ship was one of the largest to sail the Great Lakes. Lightfoot, 76, first heard about the shipwreck when he saw it that evening on the TV news.
He’d been wanting to put lyrics to the mournful melody of an old Irish folk song he remembered hearing in his toddler days, growing up in Orillia, Ontario. He explained his decision to write the song in a 2014 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session:
“When the story came on television that the Edmund had foundered in Lake Superior three hours earlier, it was right on the CBC here in Canada, I came into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and saw the news and I said, ‘That’s my story to go with the melody and the chords.’ ”
(Mobile users: click here to listen to the interview with Gordon Lightfoot)
A Newsweek article about the tragedy also was influential. Lightfoot started writing in late November of 1975 and the opening lyrics echoed the first sentence of the article, written by James R. Gaines and Jon Lowell: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’ ”
The singer/songwriter felt the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.
“The Edmund Fitzgerald really seemed to go unnoticed at that time, anything I’d seen in the newspapers or magazines were very short, brief articles, and I felt I would like to expand upon the story of the sinking of the ship itself,” said Lightfoot in the Reddit interview.
“And it was quite an undertaking to do that,” he continued. “I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about 31/2 years old. I think it was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music.”
Lightfoot was moved to change the lyrics after a 2010 documentary, “Edmund Fitzgerald,” that aired on the show “Dive Detectives” on the History Channel revealed that the cause of the wreck wasn’t crew error, but that the ship broke in half, which caused it to sink. It was thought originally that the crew failed to secure the hatches, reflected in Lightfoot’s original line:
“At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in, he said, ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’ ”
The line didn’t overtly blame the crew, but in a 2013 interview with The Detroit News, Lightfoot explained some family members of the crew told him they were bothered by the lyric. The mother and daughter of two of the deckhands in charge of the hatches told him they cringed every time they heard the lyric. And it was about the only place in the song, Lightfoot acknowledged, where he took any poetic license. “I said, ‘I can’t change what’s on the record, but at least I can change what I do in concert.’ ”
It took Lightfoot a long time to figure out how to rewrite the line, and he took suggestions from fans, but ultimately, it was thinking about how early darkness falls in November that influenced the rewrite.
The revised line:
“At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said, ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’ ”
“I figured that by November it would be getting dark at about the time that ship sank,” Lightfoot told a News reporter, “and so that’s what I did. And that replaced ‘At 7 p.m. the hatchway caved in.’ ”
While he won’t change the copyrighted lyrics, he will always do it live this way.
“So I always do it that way, and I’ve done it 200, 300 times now, because we do that song every night.”
Gordon Lightfoot sings his haunting song of the freighter the Edmund Fitzgerald and the loss of her 29 crewmen on Oct. 17, 2015, weeks before the 40th anniversary of the disaster. Daniel Mears
Gordon Lightfoot and ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’
■“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was Lightfoot’s second most successful song, after “Sundown,” but as his own website points out, the “Edmund Fitzgerald” is probably his best-known song.
■In November 1976, the song topped out at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, kept from the No. 1 spot by Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” one week, Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” another.
■Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands borrowed the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” melody and wrote new lyrics for his song, “Back Home in Derry.” The song was recorded by folksinger Christy Moore, among others.
■In the song, Lightfoot mentions the service the Mariner’s Church on Jefferson in Detroit held (now dubbed the “Great Lakes Memorial”) in honor of the wreck and the sailors who perished: “In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the Maritime Sailors Cathedral. The church bell chimed, it rang 29 times, for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Lightfoot has appeared at some of the Mariner’s Church November gatherings, although in recent years he is more likely to meet family members of the crew in Whitefish Bay, Mich.
■This year’s Mariner’s Church Great Lakes Memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday at the church, 170 W. Jefferson, Detroit.
■In late October, Lightfoot was back in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario, for the unveiling of a 13-foot-high bronze statue depicting him in his 20s. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played in the background during the ceremony.
■The Canadian mint struck a $20 silver-colored coin commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking, as part of a “Lost Ships in Canadian Waters” series. The coin features a vivid scene of the ship being swept by the perilous waves.
■Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Co. makes an Edmund Fitzgerald porter, “a bittersweet tribute to the legendary freighter’s fallen crew — taken too soon when the gales of November came early.”
■A Toronto group, Cadence, launched a gofundme campaign to fund a video to go with their version of Lightfoot’s “classic Canadian folk song” about the tragedy.