(Pictured: Gordon Lightfoot in 1978.)
Back in 2009, I wrote about the Edmund Fitzgerald for WNEW.com. I have never repeated that post at this blog, so here it is, with some editing from the original. A big part of my gig at WNEW was explaining major events and personalities in rock history to people either too young to remember or not particularly obsessed by that kind of thing. So regular readers of this pondwater probably won’t learn much from it, but that’s the chance you take around here.
To be human is to love a story. We like to be transported to different places and times and to vicariously experience the lives of others. Although our methods of storytelling have grown more sophisticated—novels and short stories and movies and TV—our fascination with a good story hasn’t changed since the storytellers were our fellow humans around the campfire, hundreds or thousands of years ago.
On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, once the largest ship on the Great Lakes, set sail from Superior, Wisconsin, bound for Detroit with a load of taconite, an iron ore-bearing mineral. On the afternoon of the 10th, a powerful early-winter storm struck the eastern end of Lake Superior with hurricane-force winds and heavy snow. The Fitzgerald lost its radar in the storm; worse, it began taking on water. Another ship traveling about 10 miles behind, the Arthur Anderson, kept in touch with the Fitzgerald throughout the long day. Early that evening, the Anderson found that it could no longer reach the Fitzgerald by radio or see it on radar. It is believed that the Fitzgerald, weakened by the battering it had taken from the storm, was struck by a giant wave and snapped in half. The crew of 29 was lost.
A couple of weeks later, Newsweek magazine published a story about the Fitzgerald that began with the following line: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee never gives up her dead.” When Gordon Lightfoot read the article, he was inspired, and by the time he returned to the studio in December to record a new album, he had written a song that told the story. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” would reach the top five of the Billboard singles chart for the first anniversary of the sinking, eventually peaking at #2. In the years since, it’s become more than merely a song—Lightfoot says that it’s the most significant song of his career.
Although there were other story songs before and there have been others since, there’s never been one better. Although I’ve heard it a million times in the last 39 years, I find myself caught up in it every time. There may be a reason for that apart from the song itself, however. On a family vacation at some point in the middle of the 1970s—maybe as late as 1975—we toured the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The ship that was going through the locks that afternoon was the largest man-made object I had ever seen; from our vantage point in the visitors’ area, the few people looking down at us from the deck of the ship seemed extremely tiny in comparison. Because the ship was so enormous, I remembered its name: it was the Edmund Fitzgerald, of course. I’ve always wondered if any or all the people we saw on board that day were among those who were lost in the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwreck, on November 10, 1975.