Gordon Lightfoot: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

17 Nov

Birthday greetings to folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, who celebrates No. 73 today.

Lightfoot’s birthday falls exactly one week after the 36th anniversary of the event memorialized in one of his most famous songs: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship, which for 17 years carried iron ore across the Great Lakes, sank during a storm on Nov. 10, 1975 in the Canadian waters of Lake Superior; all 29 members of its crew perished.

The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Lightfoot read about the disaster in Newsweek magazine, according to multiple accounts, and put the events to words and music. “Of the hundreds of songs he’s written,” wrote Bill DeYoung in 2010 on connectsavannah.com, “Lightfoot is most proud of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which uses the structure of an old Scottish folk tune to tell the true story of a bulk freighter that sank on Lake Superior . . .”

Lightfoot is even more proud of it now than ever. Because in 2010, aided by new evidence, he updated history. The original words to the song included lyrics that, thanks to the inquiry, implied some fault on the part of the crew:

At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in,
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’ ”

A 2010 History Channel documentary (Dive Detectives) cleared the crew of fault, and Lightfoot changed the lines, in live appearances according to torontosun.com, to:

“At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said,
‘Fellas it’s been good to know ya.’ ”

“. . . I’ve been in touch with these people for years,” Lightfoot said, acording to the Sun. “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.”

According to the website Lightfoot.ca, the official inquiry had blamed “human error, saying the rear hatches had not been properly closed.” Thanks to the documentary, the wreck is now blamed on more natural causes — its “most likely cause . . . was a rogue wave, a giant wall of water that could have toppled the ship,” according to the website.

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.

Much of  what happened that night is a mystery. The ship sent no radio calls of distress. No bodies were ever found. The legend lives on, as Lightfoot wrote about Superior, for many only from Lightfoot’s haunting account. 

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

In 1995, the ship’s bell was found, and it is displayed at a Michigan museum, according to the website ssefo.com. Each year on Nov. 10, according to the website, the bell is rung 30 times — once for every man who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald, and once for everyone ever lost in wrecks on the Great Lakes.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Sources: wikipedia.org, ssefo.com, connectsavannah.com, torontosun.com, lightfoot.ca, findagrave.com, markandwalt.com

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