Story Up My Sleeve #8 / Midweek Music Break: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot

Trackline (estimated) of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975I thought I’d take liberties with both of these ongoing series’ themes in order to combine them. This may continue for the next few Wednesdays, as well — creating, in effect, a weekly post on story songs.

Gordon Lightfoot’s rambling, rolling ballad doesn’t recount the real-life facts 100% exactly as they happened — at least as far as we know of those facts. Indeed, Lightfoot himself recast a portion of the lyrics (in live performances, anyhow) to reflect more recent research. Yet considering that he wrote the song within months after the event in question, and that we still — almost 40 years later — don’t know-know what happened, he didn’t do a bad job at all.

In general outline, here’s what we do (more or less) know:

On the afternoon of November 9, 1975, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sailed with a crew of 29 from a port in Minnesota, headed across Lake Superior towards a steel mill near Detroit, to the southeast. It was laden with about 26,000 tons of an ore used in the smelting process. Later that day, it met up with another freighter headed in the same direction, the Arthur M. Anderson. The weather forecast said a storm would pass over the southern end of the lake sometime the next morning, but this wasn’t cause for alarm because the two ships wouldn’t themselves be that far south then.

A couple of hours behind the Fitzgerald, another freighter left from the same port; that captain, based on conditions as he was experiencing them and not trusting the official National Weather Service forecast, announced that his ship would be hugging the northern shore of the lake, staying in the lee as much as possible. The NWS themselves changed their forecast at around 7 p.m., warning of gale-force winds across the whole lake. By that time, of course, the Fitzgerald was well under way. (Its captain apparently had a reputation for fearlessness in heavy weather. We’ll probably never know, but this factor may have worsened the dangers already presented by the elements.) At 2 a.m. the morning of November 10, the NWS forecast was updated again: not gale-force winds, but stronger storm winds should be expected.

Things deteriorated over time aboard the Fitzgerald, which remained in occasional radio contact with the Anderson. Apparently, no general panic came through these broadcasts. By mid-afternoon of the 10th, though, the Fitzgerald reported that it had lost some fixtures — a railing, some vent covers — and was taking on water, even acquiring a list to one side; its radar failed soon afterwards. Sustained winds logged by the Anderson were in the 60-70 mph range, with gusts of course much higher. Wave heights apparently reached over 25 feet, with some “rogue waves” in excess of 30 feet.

A little after 7 p.m., the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald, asking how things were. “We’re holding our own,” reported the Fitzgerald. The ship sank mere minutes later, with a loss of all 29 crew members. No bodies or wreckage were ever recovered.

So, what did happen?

Wikipedia lists six (!) main (not necessarily mutually exclusive) theories, with seven (!!) possible other “contributing factors.” The ship will probably never be raised, but explorations since — including both manned and unmanned dives — show that the ship broke almost exactly in half, with the bow stuck pointing down into the lake bed and the aft lying on its side, around 170 feet away. According to one scenario (the one most nightmarish to me), the Fitzgerald, already damaged and sitting low in the water, was struck mid-ships by a rapid succession of three rogue waves, the combined force of which sufficed to snap the ship like a dry stick.

As the song says, the next day a church bell in Detroit was rung 29 times, once for each of the men aboard. Although the hatch covers were originally thought to have been faulty, or perhaps incorrectly closed — hence the reference to a hatchway’s caving in — later studies indicated that they’d probably been fine. (That’s the line which Lightfoot altered, by the way.) Nor was the ship headed for Cleveland*: as far as I can tell, the song refers to that city just for the sake of a (not-quite-)rhyme.

Note: If you’re a fact hound, Wikipedia includes a list of Lightfoot’s departures from the historic facts as we’ve come to understand them. Evidently, once he wrote the song in 1976, he didn’t keep up with all the later dives and official investigations and general theorizing. Only when contacted for a 2010 History Channel documentary about the wreck, it says, did he know that his reference to faulty hatchways no longer, er, held water.

Aside from these little twitches, though, the song’s lyrics do a pretty good job of describing what happened. On the other hand, the melody, umm, well… As I always say, I don’t know very much (i.e., anything) at all about songwriting. But the words of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are draped over what may be the lumpiest, least appealing, even dullest melody in Gordon Lightfoot’s songbook. If I you tally up the… what’s the term? the bars? the measures? musical phrases?…. the mini-tunes within each line of the song, I’d say it contains no more than three, played and sung relentlessly, over and over and over, throughout the entire seven-verses-of-seven-lines-each, six-minute length. The “feel” of the song to me comes across as, yes, maritime. You can almost feel the swell of the waves. But it doesn’t end, so much as just stop; little drama inheres in the music as music, and not a single rogue wave of tension breaks over the tune — for me, a disappointment in a song about such dramatic events.

(But again, what do I know? The song did get to #1 in a couple of 1976 Canadian Billboard lists, and to #2 on one in the U.S. You just don’t sell that many copies of truly dull songs.)



* True, the Fitzgerald was bound ultimately for Cleveland, where it would have spent the winter. In the context of a song about the wreck, though, it feels something of a stretch to claim its destination to have been a city on a completely different Great Lake. It’s like saying the Titanic was bound for Southampton, UK — because, y’know, eventually it would have gone there again.

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