CERTAIN SONGS FROM MY TEEN years into my early 20s occasionally surface like ear worms in my mind. Today that tune is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a ballad by Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist Gordon Lightfoot.
The 84-year-old musician died on Monday, leaving a legacy of storytelling that includes his version of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s fateful final journey. The iron ore carrier sank in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, claiming the lives of 29 crewmen.
Stories about the catastrophic shipwreck during a storm with hurricane force winds, waves reaching 70 feet and a gale force warning bannered newspapers. It was especially big news here in Minnesota since the 729-foot long by 75-foot wide ship left Superior, Wisconsin, just across from the port city of Duluth. The Fitzgerald was weighted with 26,000 tons of taconite pellets and bound for a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan.
On the afternoon of November 9, the freighter left Superior. By 7:15 pm the next evening, the USS Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared, the wreckage later found 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan.
In Lightfoot’s words:
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 out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The lengthy folk song of 6.5 minutes unfolds in suspenseful storytelling style. Lightfoot takes his listeners on board the massive Edmund Fitzgerald caught in the stormy, churning waters of Gitche Gumee (Ojibwe for Lake Superior). The songwriter uses some artistic license in his version of the disaster as noted when comparing facts to lyrics. Yet, his haunting song, like reality, carries the truth of death, the heavy emotions of loss. Every time I hear Lightfoot’s song, I feel overcome with sadness, as if the powerful, roiling waves of Superior are rolling over me, pulling me down down down into the dark depths of the lake.
The emotional intensity of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” remains strong for me, even decades after I first heard the new release in 1976. And that’s a credit to Lightfoot, who wrote history into a ballad that is poetically and tragically memorable.
TELL ME: Are you a fan of Gordon Lightfoot or any of his songs? I’d like to hear your thoughts on him, this ballad or musicians and/or songs particularly memorable to you.
FYI: Click here to read a post I wrote in 2014 about a presentation on the Edmund Fitzgerald at the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault.
© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling