A Few Fine Pop Songs
Immersed in History

By Harold Frost

HistoryAccess.com, 2010

This is Part Three of a Three-Part Article

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by
Gordon Lightfoot (1976)

(Note: The record as listed with Billboard doesn’t italicize the ship’s name.)

Born in Ontario in 1938, trained as a choirboy, Gordon Lightfoot became a folksinger in Toronto in the 1960s, writing and performing songs about Canadian seafaring history and the building of the nation’s railroads. He became a key figure in the songer/songwriter movement of the early 1970s with the gorgeous “If You Could Read My Mind” in January of 1971.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes oreboat that sank in Lake Superior during a storm on November 10, 1975, taking 29 men to their deaths. Lightfoot read a newspaper account of the tragedy and wrote a stunning piece of contemporary history about it, calling upon his familiarity with maritime life.

Lightfoot’s recording of the song, six minutes and 28 seconds long, reached number two on the Billboard chart in the autumn of 1976. (An interesting cover version is here.) Lightfoot’s record features sinuous, strange guitar lines, and singing that’s wonderfully sea-chantyish, as if he were performing for whalers in a smoky Halifax dive in 1840. In that voice, and in those guitars, we can hear the exaltation of seafaring, the loneliness of it, and the full-fathom fear that often accompanies it, with the void a constant presence, 10 feet away, just over the railing. 

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Detroit on June 8, 1958, its day of christening and launching. Three swings of the champagne bottle were required before the glass broke – an inauspicious beginning, according to maritime superstition.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, 729 feet in length, was owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the chairman of which, at the time of the ship’s christening in 1958, was Mr. Edmund Fitzgerald.

In November, 1975, the “Fitz,” as it was known (also “Mighty Fitz”) was bound from Superior, Wisconsin, for Detroit, Michigan, carrying 26,116 tons of iron ore. The ship sank like a brick at about 7:15 on the pitch-black stormy evening of November 10. No serious distress signals were received. No bodies were recovered. There were no witnesses. Other ships and boats on the lake made it to port. The Fitz rests today in 530 feet of water in the eastern part of Lake Superior, about 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Bay, Michigan.

The “X” marks the final resting place of the
Edmund Fitzgerald.

No conclusive cause for the sinking has been determined, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), but the “probable” cause, says the agency, was sudden flooding of the ship’s huge and heavily-laden cargo hold, due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers caused by heavy seas and waves. A TV documentary produced by the Discovery Channel essentially agrees with the NTSB, positing a rogue wave. The U.S. Coast Guard has a different opinion – it believes the sinking was fostered by a gradual flooding of the cargo hold, primarily caused by the crew’s ineffective closing of cargo hatches, and by damaged, inadequately-repaired hatches. (The ship had 21 cargo hatches, each one secured by 68 manually-operated clamps.) Another theory, offered by various parties, is that the vessel took on water through an undetected hole in the hull caused by a reef. Further assessment of the wreck is made problematic by the depth of mud in which it sits.

Whatever the cause, the ship nose-dived to the bottom so quickly that many or most men were undoubtedly caught belowdecks, says historian Frederick Stonehouse, who describes their possible fate in an interview – a fate suffered by many a mariner over the years:

“How long does it take for an engine room or a sleeping compartment to flood? How many minutes does it actually take to drown under those circumstances? For that terrifying period of time those men certainly would have known what was happening and knew just how powerless they were to stop it.”

Gordon Lightfoot has declined over the years to discuss the song with historians or the press. However, several sources familiar with him and his work, who requested anonymity, are willing to confirm that movie producers have long been interested in building films around the song, but he has turned them down, and he’s gratified that families of the victims like the piece.

The lyrics:

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.

With a load of iron ore
twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the
Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the Gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well-seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple
of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland,
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang,
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing.
And every man knew as the captain did too,
’Twas the witch of November come stealin’.

The dawn came late and the breakfast
had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came, the old cook
came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough t’ feed ya.”
At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in;
He said,“Fellas, it’s bin good t’ know yauz!”

The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when ’is lights went
outta sight
Came the wreck of the
Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made
Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind ’er.

They might have split up or they
might have capsized;
They may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her icewater mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a
young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang
twenty-nine times
For each man on the
Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumee.”
“Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!”

A few explications of lines:

“….the big lake they called Gitche Gumee….” – “Gitche Gumee” is Ojibway (Chippewa) for “Big-Sea-Water,” i.e., Lake Superior. Gitche Gumee was the heart of the Ojibway nation for centuries. It makes its most famous literary appearance in the 1855 narrative poem “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee/By the shining Big-Sea-Water/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.” (See here for more on Longfellow.)

“….The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead/When the skies of November turn gloomy….” – Since record-keeping began in the 17th century the Great Lakes have claimed 30,000 sailors in 6,000 shipwrecks. Late autumn is the most dangerous period for ships, when big storms can blow up in a hurry. (Shipping lanes close in winter because of ice.) A storm on the Great Lakes in November, 1913, sank 19 ships and took more than 230 lives, and a storm in November, 1940, sank five ships and claimed more than 65 souls. A good book on the 1913 disaster is “White Hurricane: A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster” by David G. Brown (2002).

“…a crew and good captain well-seasoned…” – The captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald was Ernest M. McSorley, 63, a mariner for more than 40 years. Captain Jesse B. Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson, an oreboat on the lake that day (several miles behind the Fitzgerald but within radar range) testified that McSorley and the Fitz passed closer than he thought safe to a reef known as Six Fathom Shoal. Perhaps the Fitz sustained a hole at that time, but, as noted, government investigators regard other theories for the sinking as more likely.

“…When they left fully loaded for Cleveland…” – The immediate destination of the Fitz was Detroit; the ship carried enough iron ore for about 7,500 automobiles. Some sources say the vessel’s ultimate destination was Cleveland for winter docking.

“…The captain wired in he had water comin’ in/And the good ship and crew was in peril…” – No radio messages indicating peril were received.

“In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed/In the ‘Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral’/The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times/For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.” – At the Mariners’ Church of Detroit (Old Mariners’ Church), on November 11, 1975, the Rev. Richard Ingalls rang the bell 29 times.


“Anthology of American Folk Music”
Edited by Harry Smith (1952)

This collection consists of hillbilly, blues, and Cajun music from the deep, dark American past, primarily the 19th century, recorded by various artists in the late 1920s and early ’30s. It was lovingly assembled by Harry Smith (1923-1991), a musicologist, discographer, folklorist, historian, and filmmaker. Smith lived for some years in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he discovered folk music, and later resided in New York City. He issued his collection on LP in 1952; it came out on CD in 1997. Here’s a sample at YouTube.

The “Harry Smith Anthology” as it was known (also “The Anthology) amazed and delighted listeners when it first appeared – it seemed like a drink of pure spring water at a time when the world seemed hell-bent on incinerating itself, with the Soviet Union building long-range bombers and the U.S. expanding its nuclear program. People craved authenticity and roots; Smith helped provide these.

The songs are gritty, exhilarating, scary, irritating, and frickin’ weird. People in these numbers pine for God, lust for a warm body, watch the farm fail, lose a job to a machine, note the sinking of the Titanic, narrate a suicide note, recall a beloved dog, mourn, dance, rejoice, die. Among the works: “Bandit Cole Younger” performed by Edward L. Crain (1931), about the Missouri outlaw; “Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand” sung by the Williamson Brothers and Curry (1927), about the legendary John Henry; and “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” a spiritual performed by the Rev. F.M. McGee (1930).

The anthology gave impetus to the folk music revival of the post World War II years, which began the late ’40s and continued through the ’50s and early ’60s. The revival took a large share of its initial momentum from the music of Woody Guthrie (one of whose heroes in turn was Lead Belly). It spawned the Weavers (who formed in late 1948), Bob Dylan, Odetta, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Dave Van Ronk, the New Lost City Ramblers, and many other acts. “We all knew every word of every song on (the anthology), including the ones we hated,” wrote Van Ronk in 1991, describing the Greenwich Village folk scene in the wake of the collection’s release. Folk music, in turn, supplied a soundtrack for the civil rights movement.

As a result of the anthology, many an American picked up a guitar, banjo, or fiddle in the 50s and 60s, and a fair number of these impassioned souls were still playing in the 90s and 00s. Folklorist Jon Pankake describes this grass-roots phenomenon citing songs from Smith’s collection:

I know an attorney who, unbeknownst to his colleagues at the Minnesota statehouse, will take out his 1933 National Duolian guitar and sing a passionate rendition of “Henry Lee.” I know a physicist at a nationally important engineering firm who loves nothing better than to fiddle and sing “Old Shoes and Leggins,” “Willie Moore,” and “Ommie Wise.” I know a retired postal worker who years ago showed me on his old Silvertone banjo how he had learned to “frail” like Clarence Ashley by listening to “The Coo Coo Bird.” I know a prominent professor of folklore who, when we were graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota, taught me the guitar lick that Furry Lewis uses on “Kassie Jones.” And best of all is the girl who first heard the Anthology on a borrowed copy in her college dormitory room and resolved to learn the 5-string banjo, and with whom I have shared thirty-five years of marriage, countless Carter Family duets at the kitchen sink, and endless discussions of the music of the Anthology.

Now that’s how music stays alive. The past, too.