Friday, November 10, 2006

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

On this date in 1975, the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with all hands during a storm on Lake Superior. I was 11 years old, and while I was a faithful newspaper reader even then, and read every back issue of Newsweek that my Aunt Willa May passed me, I don't recall the wreck itself making much of an impression. The Newsweek writeup did, however, make a deep impression on Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, and the song he was inspired to write and perform, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," left me thunderstruck the next year, 1976, whenever I heard it on the radio. I got plenty of opportunity to hear it; the song went to No. 2 on the pop charts. Since then, Lightfoot's bone-chilling six-and-a-half-minute epic has cropped up occasionally on lists of most-hated songs; its critics claim that it's too long, too slow and too maudlin, down there in the depths with "Seasons in the Sun." But I loved the song then, and I love it now, without the slightest irony or distance. I hear the opening, and I'm immediately cold, as if "twas the witch of November come stealin'." And without that song, what are the odds that I would remember the Edmund Fitzgerald at all? This is one of the only examples in my lifetime of a disaster that immediately gets set to music and sung into myth, like the Baltimore fire or the wreck of the Old 97. It's downright bardic, what Lightfoot did in that song.

5 comments:

Brett said...

Anyone who would link "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" with meretricious drivel like "Seaons in the Sund" is tone-deaf and tasteless.

Lightfoot also wrote and recorded another long song about a shipwreck: "The Ballad of the Yarmouth Castle," which, if memory serves, is about a Carribbean cruise ship that caught fire and sank. Honest.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Growing up near the Canadian border, we ran into a young Gordon Lightfoot in Niagara Falls ON while he was filming his first TV special. We asked who this guy we'd ridden on the elevator was, who did take after take of this song about a river flowing by. Our breathless waitress said, "That's Gordon Lightfoot."

Long before The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, us GL fans delighted with The Canadian Railroad Trilogy, a song WAY too long for radio to play. Oddly, I've always loved really long and complicated songs, including the long American Pie, and long program pieces by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the group Renaissance (sigh).

Living in the middle of Lake Superior for 7-1/2 years, and in Michigan since 1984, the Edmund Fitsgerald -- boat, story, song and legend -- are a big news resonance every November. Hell, the wreck date is even on my mother's birthday and I teach about the wreck in my first semester Physics classes.

Great singer, that young Gordon Lightfoot. (grin)

Dr. Phil

Tracy S. Miller said...

Amen, Brother! I LOVE this song. There are a few songs from my childhood that have invaded my psyche, and this is one of them...

My favorite "hair on the back of your neck standing up" lyrics from the song are:

Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Oooooohhh... Love it love it love it.

Let the bell ring 29 times!

Katy

Anonymous said...

Andy: The only thing similar that I can think of is "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan, although that wasn't an event but the tragedy of a single individual. I really like Gordon Lightfoot's music -- In the Early Morning Rain, If You could Read My Mind, etc. The second of those songs refers to one of my favorite Abbot and Costello movies -- The Time of Their Lives. Melody. Thanks for helping me remember The Edmund Fitzgerald.

jeff ford

BNJ said...

Speaking of "Seasons in the Sun," I recently learned something about that song that I found fascinating. Evidently it's an English translation of a Jacques Brel tune called "Le Moribund." Maybe y'all knew that, but I didn't.