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THE Story Behind THE Song Gordon Lightfoot THE Wreck of THE Edmond Fitzgerald

A famous folk-song about a terrible ship sinking on Lake Superior in 1974.


Known as the Canadian Bob Dylan, Lightfoot recorded this remarkable tribute to the doomed crew of the SS Edmond Fitzgerald in 1976, just a year after the ship sank in Lake Superior, claiming the lives of all 29 of her crew. 

The Big Fitz as she was affectionately known, was a giant iron-carrying freighter. The Captain for many years, Captain Peter Pulzer, was noted for playing music on the ship’s tannoys and announcing her arrival to tourists on the microphone as the ship approached ports and docks. He was known as the DJ Captain. He was not in charge on the fatal night of November 10th 1975. Captain Ernest McSorley was in command.

An unseasonal storm, a premature winter gale force tempest, struck on the ships second night out. A second ship, The Arthur M Anderson, was also out, and almost perished. The Big Fitz, bound for Michigan, in the US, was just fifteen miles from shore, in Canadian waters, and went down quickly. Though a radio report from the ship had reported some problems, no outright distress signal was sent before the sinking. Late messages to the Anderson reported that the Fitz had lost guardrails and was starting to list alarmingly. Soon afterwards the Fitz’s radar system failed and she was asking the Anderson to give her position and guidance towards the nearest safe harbour, Whitefish Bay, where the lighthouse beacons were operating but not the Bay’s radio guidance systems, (as discovered by Captain McSorley on his inquiries to the shore). McSorley warned the captains of other vessels not to allow their men out on the decks with such heavy waves battering the vessels on the lake. The last communication from the Edmond Fitzgerald was at 7.10 pm on November 10th. 1975.

The wreck was found a year later, with the ship split in two, just over 500 feet down. Subsequent explorations (using submersible cameras, as the water is too deep for divers) have revealed the remains of at least one crewman, wearing a life jacket on board. The ship certainly broke up on the surface.

Changes in safety equipage, navigation charting, and signalling of problems on board a vessel in severe weather conditions were made in the wake of the Big Fitz disaster.

Lightfoot’s song is a long one, over 7 minutes in length, initially an album track, but released as a single in Canada by popular demand (the tragedy having touched many hearts there). It was to touch only the bottom of the UK hit parade by reaching number 40.  The song is written in a Dorian Mode metre, a system based on classical Greek music scales, giving the song a strong sense of classical tragedy.

Lightfoot speculates on what the crew did and said in the last minutes before the ship sank. He puts much of the dialogue in the mouth of the ship’s cook, rather than the Captain, and of course, no one knows what was said or done among the crew that fateful night. Ion many ways Lightfoot’s song touches on similar territory to the later movie, The Perfect Storm, by adding a number of fictional conceits within the narrative to compensate for what is not and cannot be known at all.

Lightfoot ties the tragedy in to Native American superstitions about the dangers faced by the ocean sized lake, and erroneously claim the ship was bound for Wisconsin, when she was bound for Michigan. He ends the song with a true reference to the service held in a Mariner’s church in Detroit, where a bell was rung twenty-nine times, one for each life lost that night.

In performance, Lightfoot tweaks the lyrics to tie in with knowledge gleamed from wreck inspections, but the recording remains unchanged, and undoubtedly one of the greatest folk-story tributes to the fallen in a real life tragedy ever recorded.

This is by no leans a cheerful song, in contrast to Lightfoot’s Daylight Katy, and other numbers. It’s deeply melancholy and sad, but also heart-warming, caring and sincere. Its length and unhappy subject matter mean it rarely gets radio airtime, and for many outside Canada, it is best found as an album track or download.

Arthur Chappell

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