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Gordon Lightfoot: The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

Updated: May 9, 2023

Ian Malin

Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau struck the right note when he said of the death of Gordon Lightfoot: ‘He captured our country’s spirit in his music and, in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape.’ For Britons of a certain age Lightfoot, who has died in Toronto at the age of 84, is familiar for a couple of hits in the early Seventies, his plangent baritone voice helping creating the perfect four-minute single If You Could Read My Mind in 1971 and the sunnier, bouncy Sundown three years later.

Early Morning Rain is another Lightfoot gem, the mournful song of a troubadour with ‘nowhere to go’. It’s a song similar to that of another baritone, Scott Walker’s Lights Of Cincinnati, the airport departure a metaphor for the sadness of departing lovers. Lightfoot’s personal life fuelled his art. He always said, though, that his favourite song had nothing to do with his own experiences. It was the epic The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.

Not too many modern songs are inspired by real-life tragedies. One that springs to mind is New York Mining Disaster (1941) although the disaster the first British hit single by The Bee Gees in the spring of 1967 referred in a literal sense to a mining disaster in New York in 1939 and, in a metaphorical sense, was really a song about the Aberfan disaster a few months earlier. And, like many Bee Gees songs, it isn’t that good.

Similarly, Abraham, Martin and John was recorded by Dion and later by Marvin Gaye in the wake of the shooting of Robert Kennedy while Bruce Springsteen recorded a whole album, The Rising, to mark 9/11. Harry Chapin’s Dance Band On The Titanic and Kris Drever’s Scapa Flow 1919 are also worth a listen.

There aren’t too many straight narrative accounts of disasters like Lightfoot’s. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter carrying iron ore that sunk during a November storm in 1975 with the loss of an entire crew of 29 men, the largest ship ever to have sunk on the Great Lakes.

Lightfoot read an article in the November 24 issue of Newsweek entitled The Cruellest Month and was moved to write the song. It appeared on his album Summertime Dream. Years later on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday programme he said that part of his motivation for writing the song came when he saw the name misspelled ‘Edmond’ and that he felt it had dishonoured those who had died.

From the song’s opening lines…

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

That lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

…to the song’s closing lines

The legend lives on the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

Superior, they said, never gives up her dead

When the gales of November come early

There is a sense of the horror on board this stricken vessel that, like the Titanic, must have seemed unsinkable. The seven verses of the song stretch to almost six minutes. The album cut, with its extra guitar and pedal steel guitar, was longer. That made it struggle for airtime on the radio in the Seventies. Even so radio programmers of the day could bring themselves to chop verses off the song to make way for adverts. The length was no handicap to its success. It topped the Canadian charts and reached No2 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Lightfoot himself revised the song over the years in live performances.

In 2010 Lightfoot began changing the lyric for live performances after seeing new evidence about the vessel’s sinking in a documentary series. ‘I got to meet hundreds of people. We’ve been to all kind of events. I’ve been three times down to the Mariners’ Church in Detroit. One Sunday I sang in front of 18 sea captains all lined up in a row,’ said Lightfoot at the time.

The Canadian was admired by fellow songwriters. Compatriot Neil Young covered Early Morning Rain while Bob Dylan, who performed Lightfoot songs at his own concerts, once remarked: ‘I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his I wish it would last forever.’

Dylan particularly admired The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, a song that does seem to last forever. The day after the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald the Mariners’ church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times, once for each life lost. A fitting memorial for the disaster while this song is a fitting memorial to Gordon Lightfoot’s songwriting genius.


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