An Exploration of Traditional & Contemperary Balladry
Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the "Gales of November" came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
with a crew and good captain well seasoned,
concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
And later that night when the ship's bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too
'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'.
"Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
(*2010 lyric change: At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said,)
"Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they 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.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral."
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee."
"Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early!"
~Gordon Lightfoot, 1976
This is easily one of the most requested songs in my repertoire, and for many reasons it is a sentimental favorite of these listeners because it brings them back to a shared moment in our lives--which was the disaster on the Great Lakes back in 1976 (just after my senior year in high school) that we remember so well.
This song keeps us remembering!
History & Synopsis
"According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee 'never gives up her dead.'" -- Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month, James R. Gaines with Jon Lowell in Detroit, ©1975 Newsweek Magazine
Thus began the Newsweek article in the issue of November 24, 1975. That lead and the news magazine's dry story inspired Gordon Lightfoot to write one of the greatest "story songs" ever.
On November 10, 1975, an ore carrier - the Edmund Fitzgerald - sank in Lake Superior during a November storm, taking the lives of all 29 crew members. Later that month, Gordon Lightfoot, inspired by that article in Newsweek Magazine, wrote what is probably his most famous song: Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald (song clip).
Performed by Gordon Lightfoot. Single for voice, piano and guitar chords. C Major. 8 pages. Published by Alfred Publishing. (AP.VS0736)
See more info...Lightfoot wrote Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald as a tribute to the ship, the sea, and the men who lost their lives that night. When asked recently what he thought his most significant contribution to music was, he said it was this song, which he often refers to as "The Wreck". In spite of its unlikely subject matter, the song climbed to #2 on the Billboard pop charts and Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald remains one the most stirring topical ballads ever written and a highlight of every Lightfoot concert. See the song lyrics below.
Every year, on November 10th and the days leading up to it, there are commemorative services and other programs to remember the ship and the men who lost their lives. This year, 2013, marks the 38th anniversary of the shipwreck. You can find information about two of this year's events here and here. There will also be a memorial service at Mariners' Church as part of the 11am service Church calendar.
In 2010, Lightfoot changed one line in the lyrics of the song as a result of recent findings that it was waves and not crew error that lead to the shipwreck. See the lyric change below, and read about the documentary by clicking on the link below the lyrics.