The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a 1976 hit song written, composed and performed by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to memorialize the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Lightfoot considered this song to be his finest work.[2]

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
Single by Gordon Lightfoot
from the album Summertime Dream
B-side"The House You Live In"
ReleasedAugust 1976
RecordedDecember 1975
StudioEastern Sound Studios, Toronto
  • 6:30 (album version)
  • 5:57 (single edit)
Songwriter(s)Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot singles chronology
"Rainy Day People"
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
"Race Among the Ruins"
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on YouTube

Appearing originally on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, Lightfoot re-recorded the song in 1988 for the compilation album Gord's Gold, Vol. 2.

Lyrics Edit

The song chronicles the final voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it succumbed to a massive late-season storm and sank in Lake Superior with the loss of all 29 crewmen. Lightfoot drew inspiration from news reports he gathered in the immediate aftermath, particularly "The Cruelest Month", published in Newsweek magazine's November 24, 1975 issue.[3] Lightfoot's passion for recreational sailing on the Great Lakes[4] informs his ballad's verses throughout.

Recorded before the ship's wreckage could be examined, the song contains some artistic conjectures, omissions and paraphrases. In later interviews, Lightfoot recounted how he had agonized over possible inaccuracies while trying to pen the lyrics until his lead guitarist Terry Clements convinced him to do what Clements' favourite author Mark Twain would have advised: just tell a story.[5] Deviations from the facts of the tragedy include:

  • According to the song, Edmund Fitzgerald was bound "fully loaded for Cleveland." In fact, the ship was heading for Zug Island near Detroit, where it was set to discharge its cargo of taconite iron ore pellets before heading on to its home port of Cleveland for the winter.[6]
  • The Edmund Fitzgerald was not "coming back from some mill in Wisconsin." Lake freighters that carry bulk iron ore are loaded at ore docks, not mills.[7]
  • Capt. Ernest McSorley had stated in his last radio transmission before the ship sank that he and the crew were "holding our own," not that they had "water coming in," although he did communicate several hours earlier that the ship was taking on water.[8]
  • The song mentions possible causes of sinking, and while there is still debate about the cause, exploration of the wreckage found the bow and stern relatively close to each other on the lakebed floor, ruling out that it "might have split up."[9] However this exploration took place a significant amount of time after the writing of the song.
  • Lightfoot refers to the Mariners' Church of Detroit as "The Maritime Sailors' Cathedral."[10]
  • In a later live recording, Lightfoot recounts that a parishioner of the church informed him that the church is not "musty." From that time on, instead of singing "In a musty old hall..." he sang "In a rustic old hall..."[11]
  • In March 2010, Lightfoot changed a line during live performances to reflect new findings that there had been no crew error involved in the sinking. The line originally read, "At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said..."; Lightfoot began singing it as "At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said...." Lightfoot learned about the new research when contacted for permission to use his song for a History Channel documentary that aired on March 31, 2010. Lightfoot stated that he had no intention of changing the original copyrighted lyrics; instead, from then on, he simply sang the new words during live performances.[12]
SS Edmund Fitzgerald (1971)

Production Edit

The song was recorded in December 1975 at Eastern Sound,[13] a recording studio composed of two Victorian houses at 48 Yorkville Avenue in a then-hippie district of downtown Toronto. The famous studio, which also recorded Rush, Cat Stevens, Bruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix, was later torn down and replaced by a parking lot.[14]

Pee Wee Charles and Terry Clements came up with "the haunting guitar and steel riffs" on a "second take" during the evening session.[15]

Lightfoot cleared the studio and killed all the lights save the one illuminating his parchment of scribbled words when recording his vocal part.[16]

The song was the first commercial digital multitrack recording on the 3M 32-track digital recorder — a prototype technology at the time.[17]

Chart success Edit

Lightfoot's single version hit number 1 in his native Canada (in the RPM national singles survey) on November 20, 1976, barely a year after the disaster.[18] In the United States, it reached number 1 in Cashbox and number 2 for two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 (behind Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night"), making it Lightfoot's second-most successful single, behind only "Sundown". Overseas it was at best a minor hit, peaking at number 40 in the UK Singles Chart.[19]

Personnel Edit

In popular culture Edit

See also Edit

References Edit

  1. ^ Person, James (January 1, 1998). "Gordon Lightfoot". In Knopper, Steve (ed.). MusicHound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. p. 294.
  2. ^ DeYoung, Bill (March 2, 2010). "If You Could Read His Mind: A Conversation with Folk Music Legend Gordon Lightfoot". Connect Savannah.
  3. ^ Jennings, Nicholas (2016). Lightfoot. p. 148. ISBN 9780735232556. Retrieved May 3, 2023.
  4. ^ Weiss, William R. "This Goose Is Golden". Retrieved December 9, 2017.
  5. ^ Casey, Chris (November 10, 2000). "25 Years Later, Lightfoot Content with Popularity of Fitzgerald Ballad". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 31, 2023. [Clements] said Mark Twain would say, `Tell a story'.
  6. ^ Wert, Ray (November 10, 2011). "Remembering the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 36 Years Later". Jalopnik.
  7. ^ "The Fateful Journey". Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
  8. ^ "Fitz Timeline". S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  9. ^ Bishop, Hugh (2000). The Night the Fitz Went Down. Duluth, Minnesota: Lake Superior Port Cities. p. 86. ISBN 0-942235-37-1.
  10. ^ Cabadas, Joseph (November 2012). "Part of Detroit's maritime heart: Mariners' Church carries on 170-year tradition" (PDF). DAC News. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  11. ^ Balunda, George (November 2010). "Mariners' Church of Detroit". Hour Detroit. Retrieved December 10, 2011.
  12. ^ Stevenson, Jane (March 26, 2010). "Lightfoot Changes 'Edmund Fitzgerald' Lyric". Toronto Sun. Archived from the original on March 28, 2010. Retrieved May 5, 2023.
  13. ^ "Album Recording Notes". Lightfoot!. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  14. ^ "Recording Studios used in Toronto: Eastern Sound". Bruce Cockburn & Toronto: A Historical Tour. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  15. ^ Charles, PeeWee (November 10, 2012). "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald....37 years ago today!!". The Steel Guitar Forum. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  16. ^ Treece, Tom (November 20, 2006). "Me and 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'". But What Do I Know?. The Monroe Evening News. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  17. ^ Heffner, Matt (March 11, 2022). "The Story Behind Gordon Lightfoot's Famous Edmund Fitzgerald Song". Retrieved May 5, 2023.
  18. ^ "Item Display. RPM". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on October 15, 2012. Retrieved August 18, 2010.
  19. ^ "Official Singles Chart Top 50: 23 January 1977 - 29 January 1977". Official Charts Company. Retrieved November 26, 2016.
  20. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992. Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  21. ^ Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1990 - ISBN 0-89820-089-X
  22. ^ "Cash Box Top Singles - 1976". December 20, 1963. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  23. ^ "Gordon Lightfoot Chart History (Hot Rock & Alternative Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  24. ^ "Top Singles – Volume 26, No. 14 & 15, January 08 1977". RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on March 19, 2016. Retrieved June 13, 2016.
  25. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1999). Pop Annual. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. ISBN 0-89820-142-X.
  26. ^ "The CASH BOX Year-End Charts: 1976; TOP 100 POP SINGLES (As published in the December 25, 1976, issue)". Retrieved June 5, 2016.
  27. ^ "Hill Bent for Laughter". Retrieved February 11, 2019.

Further reading Edit

Alan Rauch. “’Fellas, it’s Been Good to Know You’: Gordon Lightfoot’s Edmund Fitzgerald,” The Newsletter of the Charlotte Folk Society, Vol. 28 (06), June 2023, p. 4.

External links Edit