The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
Single by Gordon Lightfoot
from the album Summertime Dream
B-side The House You Live In
Released August 1976
Format 7" 45
Recorded December 1975
Genre Folk rock
Length 6:32 (Album Version)
5:57 (Single Edit)
Label Reprise
Writer(s) Gordon Lightfoot
Producer(s) Lenny Waronker
Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot singles chronology
"Rainy Day People"
1975
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
1976
"Race Among the Ruins"
1976

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a song written, composed and performed by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot to commemorate the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. It was inspired by the Newsweek article on the event, "The Cruelest Month", which appeared in the issue of November 24, 1975.[1] Lightfoot considers this song to be his finest work.[2]

The ballad originally appeared on Lightfoot's 1976 album, Summertime Dream, and was later released as a single. The release hit #1 in his native Canada (on the RPM national singles survey) on November 20, 1976, almost exactly one year after the appearance of the article that inspired it.[3] In the U.S., the single was #2 on the Billboard pop chart for two weeks beginning November 20, 1976, making it Lightfoot's second most successful single (in terms of chart position) in that country following "Sundown", which reached #1 in 1974. "Wreck" peaked at #40 in the UK Singles Chart.

The song is written in Mixolydian mode.[4]

Artistic license[edit]

The song contains a few artistic omissions and paraphrases. In a later interview aired on Canadian radio, Lightfoot recounted how he had agonised, while trying to pen the lyrics, over possible inaccuracies until a friend in the music industry finally removed his writer's block simply by advising him to play to his artistic strengths and "just tell a story". On the other hand, Lightfoot's personal passion for recreational sailing on the Great Lakes[5] informs his ballad's verses throughout, thus amplifying its ring of authenticity.

  • According to the song, the Fitzgerald was bound "fully loaded for Cleveland". In fact she was heading for Detroit, there to discharge her cargo of taconite iron ore pellets before docking in Cleveland for the winter.[6]
  • Capt. Ernest McSorley had stated in his last radio transmission before the boat sank that they were "holding our own." What the cook or any other crew member did or did not say will never be known; however, it is customary for folk music to include artistic renderings of a crew's final moments or speech, especially if it is unknown. Furthermore, it is doubtful if under the actual conditions of the gale, neighbouring vessels would have been able to render any real assistance if the ship was heard calling for help—or if the Edmund Fitzgerald managed to send out an SOS at all.
  • The "old cook" in the song was actually a replacement for this particular voyage, as the normal cook was too ill to make this trip.
  • Lightfoot refers to Mariners' Church of Detroit as "The Maritime Sailors' Cathedral" in the lyrics.
  • Lightfoot says that the bell was rung 29 times, once for each crew member aboard the ship. Internet sources often incorrectly claim that the bell was also rung once more in honour of all people who had lost their lives at sea, for a total of 30 times. Reverend Richard W. Ingalls, Sr., rector of Mariners' Church, tolled the bell 29 times, not 30.[7][8] The practice of tolling a bell a 30th time for all lives lost at sea began in November 10 memorial services following 1975.
  • In a later live recording, Lightfoot recounts that a parishioner of the church informed him that the church is not "musty". From that time, instead of singing "In a musty old hall...", he now sings "In a rustic old hall..."[9]
  • In March 2010, Lightfoot changed a line during live performances to reflect new findings that there was no crew error involved in the sinking. The line "At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said..." is now sung as "At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said...". Gordon learned of the new research when contacted for permission to use his song for a History Channel documentary that aired March 31, 2010. Lightfoot has stated that he has no intention of changing the copyrighted lyrics; he will simply sing the new ones in live performances from now on.[10]

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1976) Peak
position
Australian Kent Music Report 46[11]
Canadian RPM Top Singles 1
Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary Tracks 1
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 2
U.S. Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks 9
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 50

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gordon Lightfoot: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Song Lyrics. (Alt. ref. for lyrics)
  2. ^ Connect Savannah, March 2 2010, Bill DeYoung, "If you could read his mind: A conversation with folk music legend Gordon Lightfoot".
  3. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 2010-08-18. 
  4. ^ Whitesell, Lloyd (2008). The Music of Joni Mitchell. Oxford University Press. p. 119. ISBN 0199719098. 
  5. ^ Excerpt from Yachting magazine, 1979, "This Goose is Golden".
  6. ^ jalopnik.com, November 10 2011, Ray Wert, "Remembering the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 36 years later".
  7. ^ McInnis, Joseph (1998). "Fitzgerald's Storm: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", p. 62, Thunder Bay Press. ISBN 1-882376-53-6.
  8. ^ Schumacher, Michael (2005). "Mighty Fitz", p. 94, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York & London. ISBN 1-58234-647-X.
  9. ^ George Balunda (November 2010). "Mariners’ Church of Detroit". Hour Detroit (hourdetroit.com). Retrieved 2011-12-10. 
  10. ^ Toronto Sun, March 26 2010, Jane Stevenson, "Lightfoot changes 'Edmund Fitzgerald' lyric".
  11. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992. Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"Rock'n Me"
by Steve Miller Band
RPM Top Singles
number-one single

November 20, 1976
Succeeded by
"Tonight's The Night (Gonna Be Alright)"
by Rod Stewart
Preceded by
"The Games That Daddies Play"
by Conway Twitty
RPM Country Tracks
number-one single

November 6, 1976
Succeeded by
"Why I Had to Pass This Way"
by Carroll Baker