Editor’s Note: At the time this article went to press the location of a freighter known as the El Faro had just been determined. The hull of the ship had been found but the bridge and deck had separated from the ship and their whereabouts remain unknown at this time.
The El Faro foundered during Hurricane Joaquin on October 1, 2015. The irony of the timing of the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the loss and finding of the El Faro is almost uncanny. We here at Beato’s Blog honor the brave and lost crews of both vessels.
As an artist, you know you have written something pretty special when your music intertwines with reality and it tells a story…..a real story. Furthermore, when your song that tells a story runs parallel with the actual event so much itself that it takes on the identity of the story as well, you have written a “classic.” In 1976 that is just what Gordon Lightfoot did when he wrote and released the epic The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald. The Edmund Fitzgerald (“The Fitz“) was a special ship and indeed for its time it was the largest ship hauling cargo (iron ore) on The Great Lakes. However, as the story goes as and as is told in Lightfoot’s riveting folk song, The Fitz sank in the midst of a hurricane force storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. All 29 crew members perished in the sinking. This year will be the 40th anniversary of that disaster, a disaster that has largely remained unsolved to this point in terms of the actual cause of the sinking.
Beyond acknowledging the tragedy, the 40th anniversary of the sinking, and, paying respects for not only the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald but also the El Faro, we wanted to give you some insight about the uniqueness of Lightfoot’s composition–as we near the 40th anniversary of the sinking–which to this day, continues to tell a story perhaps unlike any other song has.
Writing “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”
In terms of writing the song itself, Lightfoot would explain it this way:
“The Edmund Fitzgerald really seemed to go unnoticed at that time, anything I’d seen in the newspapers or magazines were very short, brief articles, and I felt I would like to expand upon the story of the sinking of the ship itself. And it was quite an undertaking to do that, I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old.”
What is also unique about the song is that it contains no bridge and no chorus. The “edited” version of the song, which contained 7 verses, topped out at nearly 6 minutes. (The album version was even longer). The song also captures an eerie and rolling feel with open and ominous drum patterns.
Almost in unparalleled fashion, the song has also “evolved” over time because of one critical line in the song which attempts to explain the cause of the disaster. An initial investigation after the sinking suggested that the crew of The Fitz was partly to blame for the disaster by not securing the ship’s hatches. In the song Lightfoot reflected the original findings in a verse as follows: “…at 7 p.m. a main hatchway gave in.” This is one of the most suggestive lines in the song and it connotes an unimaginable and terrifying scene.
However, in 2010 a Canadian documentary claimed to have proven the crew of the ship was not responsible for the tragedy. It concluded that there is little evidence that failure to secure the ship’s hatches caused the sinking. In response Lightfoot did what few artists ever do–change the lyrics to the song. Lightfoot had this to say:
“I can’t use the hatch cover line anymore. And the whole verse was really conjecture right from start to finish anyway. It’s the only verse in the whole song where I give myself complete poetic licence. It absolves some of the deckhands who were in charge of those hatch covers because I’ve been in touch with these people for years. The mother and the daughter of two of the deck guys who would have been in charge of that have always cringed every time they’ve heard the line. And they will be very pleased. And they know about it and they’re very happy about it.”
Now, Lightfoot would sing this instead: “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said, ‘Fellas it’s been good to know ya.””
The Success Of The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
Lightfoot released the track in 1976 and it appears on his Summertime Dream album. Despite the construction of the song, it was well received and it went to Number 1 in his native Canada on November 20, 1976, almost exactly one year after the appearance of the article that inspired Lightfoot. In the United States, the single hit Number 1 on Cashbox it went to Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it Lightfoot’s second-most-successful single behind Sundown. The track also peaked at Number 40 on the U.K. singles chart.
Editor’s Note: Lightfoot drew his inspiration from an article in Newsweek entitled The Cruelest Month which was published in its November 24, 1975, issue.
Today, the song is largely associated as the anthem for the disaster. It is has served a great purpose in bringing to light (and remembrance at that) a disaster that without Lightfoot, might have been largely unknown. As would be expected, the song is still regularly performed by Lightfoot and it would be difficult to imagine Lightfoot not performing it.
The Indelible Capture Of The Fitz
The sinking of The Fitz has undeniably captured out attention largely because of Lightfoot’s iconic lyrics and music which tell a riveting story that despite our knowledge of how it ends, we still like to be told the story anyway. It is difficult to think of a song that better tells a story–fictional or not–than Lightfoot’s composition. Indeed, the lyrics alone–without any music–are a fascinating read in and of themselves. Interestingly, The Fitz is not the first sinking that has captivated our collective attention; another famous foundering involving the passenger ship Titanic has also proven to be an inescapable tale that we cannot explore enough of. In fact, it is not uncommon to still read of accounts of that ship in the papers of today whether that be of artifacts recovered about the ship or its passengers or, suggested fact findings relating to the cause of its sinking. However, between these two tragedies there is one major difference; it took director James Cameron an entire movie to tell Titanic’s story where Lightfoot was able to tell his tale in about 6 minutes.
That is not in any way a knock on Cameron as he undeniably produced an epic film which masterfully and dramatically told a tragic story involving a great and unfortunate loss of life. Instead, the statement is meant to honor Lightfoot’s accomplishment’s as a folk writer and performer because he was able to enthrall us all in a similarly tragic story through a folk song without the benefit of any visual arts. That accomplishment cannot be overlooked even 40 years later.
What is it about The Fitz that draws us to her and her imperiled crew? Is it morbid curiosity? A desire to solve an unsolved mystery, or, is it our inalienable and flawed human characteristic that irresistibly attempts to align us with those who were in peril in order to try to experience what they experienced then at that moment? Perhaps it is a little of each but one thing is for sure, Lightfoot’s words and music took us (and still take us) to Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, at about 7:00 p.m., and they put us on the deck of a very large ship that if stood on its end would stand more than 7 stories tall. Few artists or songs have ever done such a thing. Even the sobering 7th verse–which is an epilogue of sorts–which puts us in that “musty old hall in Detroit,” gives us insight to the raw and personal aftermath of the disaster as experienced by the grieving family members.
It might appear to be difficult to separate the glory due Lightfoot as a song writer from the story that his song tells. Indeed, no one can celebrate or glorify what happened to those 29 crew members 40 years ago; they were real people who suddenly and dramatically lost their lives. However, for the moment we should solemnly salute Lightfoot for his musical skill in capturing that event in time through his music. One can listen to the song 100 times yet at the moment of tragedy we still pause to reflect on what that must have been like. For that, Lightfoot should be singled out and recognized as a great artist. He wrote a timeless classic that lives on coterminous with the memories of the crew themselves. Furthermore, his anthem has probably aided in the healing process and remembrances of the crew as it is evident that Lightfoot has had considerable contact with the surviving family members of the crew of The Fitz.
So, as we near the 40th anniversary of this tragic event we honor those who lost their lives on The Fitz as well as the El Faro. However, we also want to honor–with rightful respect to those who lost their lives–the man who brought the story of the tragedy to our radios, record players, concert halls, and, most importantly, to our hearts. Mr. Lightfoot you have done well and we thank you for that.
It would only be fitting that we leave you with Gordon Lightfoot himself performing this classic folk song that will undoubtedly live on with the legend of The Fitz to keep the story and event alive in our hearts forever.