Today, November 10, marks the 40th anniversary of the tragic maritime accident on the Great Lakes- 29 men died that day in 1975 when the giant iron ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald split in two and sank to the bottom of chilly Lake Superior. Just one year later, in 1976, the Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote and recorded “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, which turned out to be the masterpiece of his career. Four decades on the song lives on as the finest ballad ever composed about a shipwreck. Clocking in at six and half minutes, the song went to number 2 on the American charts. Lightfoot won the Canadian Juno award for songwriting.
Ten meter waves and hurricane force winds were responsible for the wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald. It wasn’t the first such disaster on the treacherous Great Lakes waters. On November 29, 1966, 28 crewmen on the freight Daniel J. Morrell sank in a wild storm on Lake Huron. Back in 1958, on November 19, 33 men died when the freighter known as Carl D. Bradley sank in a Lake Michigan catastrophe. On November 11, 1940, 57 men died when three ships went down in Lake Michigan. And most poignantly of all, a record 254 people died on November 11, 1913 when a hurricane on Lake Huron forced 19 ships to a watery grave.
All of these tragedies happened in November storms.
Ever the prescient observer, Lightfoot highlighted the danger of sudden storms at this time in haunting fashion with the following lines:
“The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
When the waves broke over the railing
And every man knew as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealing”
The song was featured as the second track on Lightfoot’s Reprise album Summertime Dream. It was unlike any track he had ever recorded and seems strangely out of place on this album, which is a rather quiet affair. The length of the song, the slashing electric guitars, the long instrumental passages, the non-traditional rhyme scheme (mostly internal rhyming) were a significant departure from his other work of that period.
However, Gordon Lightfoot had a long history with powerful ballads, going back to his days on Liberty Records. Consider, if you will, the brilliant “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, the maritime tune “Marie Christine”, and especially “Black Day in July”, which chronicled the Detroit race riots in 1967. These were great songs, but they were folk-based with quiet finger-picked acoustic 12 string guitars. For “Edmund Fitzgerald”, Lightfoot adopted a newer, stronger approach to songwriting and to arranging that culminated in the magnificence of this track.
The rolling, roiling waters of Lake Superior, the thundering waves, the ethereal west wind are all palpable in this recording. It’s impossible to listen to Lightfoot’s performance without being greatly moved by the impenetrable majesty, danger and inevitability of a violent storm. The electric guitar of Terry Clements, the powerful bass of Rick Haynes, and particularly, the drums and percussion of Barry Keane are individually, and collectively, their finest achievements on record.
Here is the kicker: Lightfoot’s voice, for all of its legendary beauty (about which Dylan famously said “I would listen to Gordon Lightfoot sing anything.”) comes to the fore on this track with an authority and conviction scarcely hinted at in all of his previous outings. I say this as one who has seen him several times in concert, in many different settings, from the tiny coffee-house in Ottawa known as Le Hibou to the magnificence of Toronto’s Massey Hall.
“Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice water mansion”
No songwriter before or since has captured a maritime disaster with such lyrical force and musical authenticity. Stan Rogers did remarkably well with his “Northwest Passage”, and Dylan himself came off credibly with his take on the Titanic accident on his Tempest album a couple of years back.
Lightfoot, though, will still be heard and celebrated decades for now for this splendid achievement.