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
Eastern Sound Studios, Toronto
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"
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
"Race Among the Ruins"

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a song written, composed, and performed by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to commemorate the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Lightfoot drew his inspiration from Newsweek's article on the event, "The Cruelest Month," which it published in its November 24, 1975, issue.[1] Lightfoot considers this song to be his finest work.[2]

The ballad originally appeared on Lightfoot's 1976 album Summertime Dream, and he later released it 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 United States, the single hit #1 in Cashbox and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it Lightfoot's second-most-successful single behind "Sundown". "Edmund Fitzgerald" 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 commercial radio, Lightfoot recounted how he had agonised while trying to pen the lyrics over possible inaccuracies until Lenny Waronker, his long-time producer and friend, 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.

  • 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.
  • 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 an additional 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 originally read, "At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said..."; it is now sung as "At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said...". Lightfoot learned of the new research when contacted for permission to use his song for a History Channel documentary that aired on March 31, 2010. Lightfoot has stated that he has no intention of changing the copyrighted lyrics; he will instead, from now on, simply sing the new ones in live performances.[10]

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1976) Peak
Australian Kent Music Report [11] 46
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 Easy Listening 9
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 50

Derivative works[edit]

In 1983, filk music artist Julia Ecklar used Lightfoot's melody to compose a filksong about the abortive Apollo 13 lunar space mission. Titled "The Ballad of Apollo XIII," it was included on the album Minus Ten and Counting, a compilation of songs about space exploration.

The Canadian art-rock group The Rheostatics recorded a harrowing version of Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" for release on their 1991 album Melville.[12]

In 1995, two decades after Lightfoot's original song was written, singer-songwriter Camille West recorded a parody song with a similar rhythm titled "The Nervous Wreck of Edna Fitzgerald," about a well-to-do family's disastrous day at sea. She recorded and released it on her album Mother Tongue (subtitled "Maternal Madness, Month by Month") that year.[13] Ten years later, after she had joined the band Four Bitchin' Babes, she and the band performed the song live, prefacing it with the comment, "With apologies to Gordon Lightfoot." It was included on their album of that year, Gabby Road.[14]

The Dandy Warhols released a cover titled "The Wreck" on their album The Black Album/Come On Feel the Dandy Warhols.

NRBQ frequently performed "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" live, though in a less than serious manner. Video shows vocalist Terry Adams, reading off a lyrics sheet, chuckling as his voice cracks, while audience members throw debris at the stage [15]

In 2011 a cover entitled "Witch of November" was released by Larson Seibold Project, a side-project of Kurt Harland Larson of Information Society and Steven Seibold of Hate Dept.

The song Back Home in Derry, written by Bobby Sands and performed by Christy Moore, borrows the tune of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Song Lyrics". Gordon Lightfoot. 
  2. ^ DeYoung, Bill (March 2, 2010). "If You Could Read His Mind: A Conversation with Folk Music Legend Gordon Lightfoot". Connect Savannah. 
  3. ^ "Item Display. RPM". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved August 18, 2010. 
  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. ^ Wert, Ray (November 10, 2011). "Remembering the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 36 Years Later". Jalopnik. 
  7. ^ McInnis, Joseph (1998). Fitzgerald's Storm: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Thunder Bay Press. p. 62. ISBN 1-882376-53-6. 
  8. ^ Schumacher, Michael (2005). Mighty Fitz. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 94. ISBN 1-58234-647-X. 
  9. ^ Balunda, George (November 2010). "Mariners’ Church of Detroit". Hour Detroit. Retrieved December 10, 2011. 
  10. ^ Stevenson, Jane (March 26, 2010). "Lightfoot Changes 'Edmund Fitzgerald' Lyric". Toronto Sun. 
  11. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992. Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6. 
  12. ^ "Rheostatics". Retrieved November 10, 2015. 
  13. ^ "Mother Tongue (Maternal Madness Month By Month)". Retrieved October 26, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Gabby Road". Retrieved October 26, 2014. 
  15. ^ "NRBQ - Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Retrieved May 28, 2015. 

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