The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot (Reprise, 1976)

Death and destruction: why were we so obsessed with it in the 70s? So many gruesome, heart wrenching unhappy endings were fodder for pop songs and we gleefully bought the 45s. Well maybe not gleefully, maybe with a maudlin curiosity. This Gordon Lightfoot tune is a great example, a story song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinking in 1975, with everyone on board lost at sea. Almost exactly one year to the date of this tragedy, the tune made it all the way up to #2, which was an accomplishment in itself being that the edited version was still 6 minutes long. Radio stations played this song rather than 2 other 3 minute songs because that’s how riveting Gordo’s performance was.

The story itself is almost unfathomable in this day and age. A freighter sinking in Lake Superior? Rather than retell the story you can get an idea of what happened here. But before we had the internet, we had folk singers like Lightfoot, who read about it in Newsweek and was immediately inspired to tell the tale. It was an unpredictable storm which grew worse by the hour and left all ships on the lake vulnerable. Communication was broken down. Visibility was at near zero. Gordon painted a vivid picture of a doomed iron freighter destined to go down after 2 days of sailing, not just because of its inevitable loss in the fight between man vs nature, but because of the Chippewa Indian legend which says ” Superior they said never gives up her dead, when the gales of November turn gloomy.” In the 100 years up to 1975, in that area of the lake where the Fitzgerald went down, approximately 24 ships suffered the same fate. The Fitzgerald was the biggest and most puzzling.

Early in the Spring of 1976 during submarine expeditions they found the ship in two parts. Something had snapped the iron ore freighter in half. To this day there is still speculation of what caused the mighty vessel to split. Recently simulations have been run using weather & wave conditions during the span of the ship’s course, where hurricane force winds were registered as well as constant waves of 23 feet, with some waves over 30 feet high.

And even those facts don’t compare to how scary the song is. Maybe it’s in the way Gordon sings it in a ‘gloomy’ baritone with almost every line ending on a down note. Maybe it’s the subtle sea shanty rhythms. Maybe it’s guitar lick that sounds like a rolling wave hitting the sides of the boat. All I know is that this song scared the hell out of me as a kid, but I still wouldn’t turn it off if it came on the radio.

Side note: It was almost a #1 song, but Tonight The Night by Rod Stewart kept it out of the top spot. How would you like to be Casey Kasem that week? He plays a song about about ship tragedy where 29 die and follows it up with Rod molesting ‘a virgin girl’ who mutters in French.

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