This week’s suggestion is a long one and comes from a man called Mr Fitzgerald who, as far as I and he are aware, are unrelated to anybody or anything in this story.
Now, songs about sinking ships is not your most common subject matter and I was even asked once to do a round on that at one of my quizzes and did struggle a bit. The obvious choice is My Heart Will Go On which, itself, is not about a shipwreck but a theme to a film on that subject, there was however a song in the early sixties called Sink the Bismarck but definitely the most mysterious and controversial is the Edmund Fitzgerald as told to us by Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Lightfoot is an underrated Canadian folk singer born in Orillia, Ontario in November 1938. He would have been 85 years old this year, but sadly passed away just a week after the request for this song came in. The folk scene is much bigger in the United States than it is in virtually any other country so several of Lightfoot’s albums have achieved gold and multi-platinum status over there. In Canada he is like a God, even Robbie Robertson, from The Band once called him “a national treasure”. Probably the most successful folk singer of all-time, Bob Dylan, said of his music, “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
This story will almost entirely be a history lesson than about the song but, in reality, that’s what Gordon spend six minutes telling us in song. He wrote the song after learning of the ship’s demise and was released less than a year after it disappeared. He was quite qualified to write the song as he had spent a little time on the Great Lakes so knew the geography of it. It was also a very long a factual song. Only slightly edited down from the six and a half minute album version to a five minutes and fifty four second single, one of the unusual things about it is that it has no chorus nor a bridge, there are only a couple of bars of instrumental to separate the verses. Songs of that length wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s radio world. More than 50% of songs that in the current top 40 are under three minutes.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was built in 1957 and, at 729 feet (222 metres) in length, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes and was named after the president of the company that owed it which was the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. On the 9th of November 1975, it departed from Wisconsin and set off across Lake Superior bound for Zug Island, an Industrial reclaimed island located along the Detroit River. It was carrying 6,116 tons of taconite iron ore pellets and 29 crew and had done that same journey on many previous occasions, but this time it never reached its destination.
Let’s discover what happened before we find out exactly what inspired Lightfoot to actually tell the story in song especially as it had been a worldwide news event. So, she set sail at around 2.15pm and the weather forecast was fair. A storm was due in the early hours of the next morning and according to the National Weather Service, they estimated it would pass by on the south side of Lake Superior and shouldn’t give the vessel’s captain, Ernest M. McSorely, and his crew any cause for concern. A few hours later the weather forecast was updated and the new prediction was that the storm would be higher and engulf the whole of Lake Superior. When the captain received notice of the weather change he decided on a change of direction and headed towards the Canadian shore side of the lake. The storm came soon after midnight and ship began to battle the storm with winds that were blowing at around 60mph as well as waves that were reaching heights 10 feet (three metres) high. The ship battled on but then as around 3pm that day, it began to snow heavily making the conditions even worse. Approximately 45 mins later, the captain radioed to another ship, the SS Arthur M Anderson which was close by explaining the situation and asked if that ship would stay close by until it reached its destination as it was now tilting slightly to one side.
A few hours went by and around 19:00 hours the Anderson radioed to the Fitzgerald to see how they were getting on, the captain’s reply was, “We’re holding our own.” What the captain of the Anderson didn’t know then was that was to be the last communication with the Fitzgerald. Despite a few more attempts to make contacts the Anderson then contacted the coastguard to advise that the Fitzgerald was missing. A couple of hours later the Anderson reached its destination of Whitefish Bay and as soon as it did, the coastguard requested that it turn around and go in search of the Fitzgerald. The captain was initially reluctant but did agree telling the coastguard that he was likely to take, “A hell of a beating out there,” with the weather.
Sadly the search led to nothing. All that was found was a smashed lifeboat and various bits of debris. Other ships joined the search and after a number of hours it was concluded the Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk.
To this day, no firm conclusion has even been reached as to exactly what caused the its disappearance. There have been, and still are, numerous theories but that’s for you to source if you wish and draw your own conclusions. Many changes and improvements have been made since that fateful disaster and, thankfully, despite the continuing dangers of crossing the Great Lakes, there has been no major reoccurrences.
The following year, the wreck was found about 530 feet down in Lake Superior just 17 miles short of Whitefish Point, it was in two pieces.
In 2015, Gordon Lightfoot gave an interview to the broadcaster Simon Scott on National Public Radio where he explained that he first read about the catastrophe on Newsweek magazine and particularly because they had misspelt the names of the vessel calling it the Edmond Fitzgerald” instead of Edmund Fitzgerald and said to Scott, “That’s it! If they’re gonna spell the name wrong, I’ve got to get to the bottom of this!” In a different interview, Lightfoot noted, “The Edmund Fitzgerald really seemed to go unnoticed at that time, anything I’d seen in the newspapers or magazines were very short, brief articles, and I felt I would like to expand upon the story of the sinking of the ship itself, and it was quite an undertaking to do that. I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old. I think it was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music, so that’s where the melody comes from, from an old Irish folk song.”
Although the song tells a factual story, there are a couple of anomalies in which Lightfoot’s lyric says, “they left fully loaded for Cleveland following it with ‘when the ship’s bell rang, could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’, but it wasn’t an error, Lightfoot was attempting a rhyme so it scanned better. There has generally been little mention of the ship’s cook, but Lightfoot gave him a small role; “When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’, ‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya’. At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’ It does add an interesting touch to the story.
In 2010 a Canadian documentary was broadcast which claimed to have proven the crew of the ship was not responsible for the tragedy, by saying that there is little evidence that failure to secure the ship’s hatches caused the sinking. After that, Lightfoot said, “I’m sincerely grateful to yap films and their program The Dive Detectives for putting together compelling evidence that the tragedy was not a result of crew error. This finally vindicates, and honors, not only all of the crew who lost their lives, but also the family members who survived them. ”
In 1995, the bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was raised and restored and is now at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point. A new bell was placed on the sunken ship with the names of the 29 men who died engraved on it. Memorials and remembrances are held throughout the Great Lakes area every 10th November – the anniversary of the shipwreck.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was nominated for the Song Of The Year at the Grammy’s, but it was beaten by Barry Manilow’s with his hit I Write The Songs, which he didn’t even write. Surely another injustice.