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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Remembering the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald through Gordon Lightfoot's haunting "Wreck"

Twenty-nine men and the ship with which they went down are memorialized each November 10, with this song serving as a backdrop.

Forty-six years ago tonight — November 10, 1975 — Lake Superior was ravaged by an unusually strong storm. The greatest victim of the severe elements was a taconite-loaded freighter dubbed 'Queen of the Lakes' for its length, and her full 29-strong crew.

This ship was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot a year later with a song describing that tragic night. It's always interesting to hear how such traumatic and morbid events are adapted to fit popular forms, and I find Lightfoot's rendition to largely be a fitting tribute to the lives lost. Operating on what was known about the wreck at that time, he weaved a poetic tale of desperation, then resignation and mourning which to this day proves to be a memorable and somewhat faithful recollection of the events on the lake that night.

Some of Lightfoot's poetic can be owed to a Newsweek article from two weeks after the wreck, which reporter James R. Gaines began:

"According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called 'Gitche Gumee' never gives up her dead."

Gaines himself was undoubtedly inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha, in which "Gitche Gumee" was given as the name of Lake Superior. (More accurately, the Ojibwe, sometimes referred to as the Chippewa, refer to the lake as 'gichigami,' meaning 'great sea.') Meanwhile, the lake "never giving up her dead" is also based in fact, as the frigid temperatures limit bacterial development during decomposition. Take Gaines' opening and add a remark on the time of year, and Lightfoot's first lines take their shape:

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

Lightfoot's next section is a largely accurate narrative of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it moved through the lake before that night's storm, aside from its destination — while Cleveland is mentioned in the lyrics, she was actually bound for Detroit... though that would have not fit into a rhyme scheme nearly as well. All the while, the musical backdrop remains unchanged: steady folk rock in B minor, with the occasional measure break between lines but always returning to the same chords and instrumental and lyrical motifs. I'd normally say that such a musical backdrop represents the steadiness of the lake, but on a night like the one that did in the Edmund Fitzgerald, the constant background instead has an air of inevitability, of the inability for any of the 29 men on board to change their fate.

In discussing inevitability, it's important to point out a lyrical inaccuracy Lightfoot has since rectified in recent live performances. Around the 2:35 mark of the six-and-a-half-minute song, Lightfoot sings that "at 7 PM, a main hatchway caved in," implying the crew had not properly secured the covers. An experienced sailor himself, the singer knew the lyric's implications, but said he took information from official documents to inform his writings. All the same, newer evidence revealed that the crew was not at fault; rather, the hurricane-force winds led to a massive wave engulfing and doing in the freighter. Lightfoot has since changed the lyrics to stating that "at 7 PM, it grew dark, it was then" that the cook "said 'Fellas, it's been good to know ya!'" The line still retains the crew's chilling resignation, as undoubtedly knew their fate once the waves looked down on their craft.

As assistance could not arrive in time to save any of the sailors, one is only left to imagine how the men may have felt when they knew their number was up, whether still aboard or in the water — a visualization only made more chilling by Lightfoot's later lyric: "Does any one know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours?" While life's pleasures seem to go by in an instant, its worst moments feel as if they may never end. It's hard to comprehend how long 16 hours in such a state as the Edmund Fitzgerald's crew was that night, even as they continue to be remembered across the Great Lakes region and the world on the anniversary of their demise. Lightfoot understands and captures that difficulty, and as his own memorial to the crew concludes, we the listeners are only left with the agony and the tragedy of the night's events.


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