Gordon Lightfoot – The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976) (Video) (Lyrics)
(Written May 7, 2023)
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’ …” (Gordon Lightfoot 1976)
There is probably no more iconic opening lyric in modern music history. Sadly, Gordon Lightfoot died on May 1st, 2023 at age 84. In capturing the story of the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald in song, he immortalized the iron ore carrier, its crew, and its disputed demise for generations to come. In a sense, it has become an elegy for all those lost on the Great Lakes over the centuries.
Growing up in Michigan throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we learned about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald through Lightfoot’s lyrics. Personally, I’ve been fascinated ever since. It is easy to see why so many are still drawn to the story. First, it is a fairly “modern” shipwreck. The Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. They had enough lifeboats, modern radar, and radio communication. In fact, Captain McSorley’s last radio communication with a nearby ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, was “we are holding our own.” That chilling fact alone sends my imagination reeling.
Next, there are lingering questions as to exactly how the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Some say that she ran aground on SIx Fathoms Shoal, while others believe that the hatchways were not properly secured. Then, there are those who believe one of the Three SIsters – a reference to gigantic waves developing on Lake Superior in the wake of incredible fall storms – doomed the ship.
In fact, the subject of the Edmund Fitzgerald still garners a lot of local interest in Michigan. In September 2022, former reporter and Edmund Fitzgerald researcher Ric Mixter presented information on the wreck at the old court house in Omer. I happened to attend his presentation, and for such a small community, there was standing room only. Ric Mixter, a former reporter for local WNEM TV5, went on to present in Bay City and other nearby communities as well. What’s great about his presentation is the depth of his research, his respect for those who died in the tragedy, and his obvious love for the subject matter. He lets his audience decide for themselves the ultimate cause of the wreck. After I attended Ric Mixter’s presentation, I compiled some of his resources in the post All Things Michigan.
Finally, Gordon Lightfoot’s master songwriting draws one into the tragedy. WIth lyrics like “ice water mansion” and “Does anyone know where the love of God goes, When the waves turn the minutes to hours?,” it becomes a timeless folk song dedicated to the power of the Great Lakes. By telling the story in a basic timeline format, he immortalizes the old cook and Captain McSorley, along with the rest of the crew, for all time. I can’t think of a better tribute to the 29 men that lost their lives that fateful November day. It is one of the most haunting songs I’ve ever heard and fully deserves its rightful place in the history of timeless American folk songs.