Americana Music

Perfect Song #9: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (RIP Gordon Lightfoot)

This past week we lost the great singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot at the age of 84. The Canadian troubadour had a huge following from the mid-1960s until his death. His songs were magnificent stories, ones that many people could relate to because Gordon was having the same trials and tribulations in his own life.

Gordon was revered by other musical artists because of his ease to blend folk, pop, blues and country music into amazing songs. Bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice recorded an entire album of Gordon’s songs, and Tony was just one of many that covered his works. While his most popular songs were “Sundown,” “Rainy Day People” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” the one song of his that remains in the hearts of anyone living in the US states that border the Great Lakes as well as Ontario, is his 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” That large list includes me, as we all know very well, that these five lakes have a personality all their own, which can be both beautiful and dangerous.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was an iron ore freighter that was one of the largest ships to sail the Great Lakes. During a storm in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, the ship literally broke into two parts and immediately sunk, killing all 29 crew members. After reading an article on the wreck in Newsweek later that month, Gordon set down to write an ode to the ship, its crew, and the massive lake that swallowed them all.

Gordon kept his lyrics very close to the actual storyline told in the magazine, yet added some very personal touches about Lake Superior (“the big lake they call Gitche Gumee”), as well as what may have been the last thoughts and actions of the crew (“Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”). There is a whole story in this song, just like a short story from Sherwood Anderson or John Updike, and the listener cannot help but hang on to every word to find out what comes next. I implore you to Google the lyrics. It is a fantastic story even without music.

However, the music is just as effective as the lyrics. First off, there are just verses, no chorus. The song moves along just like a ship sailing on the Great Lake or even an ocean — repetitive, no detouring, for a long journey. The mood set is one of that continually rolling along on a large body of water with no sight of land for a long period of time. The chords used in the song are simple but mesmerizing. Starting off with the chord Asus2 (which is basically the A major chord with the B note replacing the C# note, which is very easy to finger on a standard-tuned guitar), followed by and E minor, then a quick G major, a quick D major, then back to the Asus2. That is it, but it is so hypnotic, the listener cannot help but be moved by it.

The song went Number 1 on the Canadian charts shortly after its release, and went to Number 2 on the US Billboard charts. It did not fair that well in other international charts, but it seems understandable. This is truly an Americana song, something that, while there are many tales of shipwrecks in songs throughout the centuries, this particular masterpiece hits hard with those that know the power of the Great Lakes. There isn’t a folk singer that I know from the Michigan area that doesn’t have this song on his/her setlist. I have been to Mariner’s Church in Detroit a few times in November to hear the bell rung 29 times, and once did witness Gordon perform the song there.

I have always loved this song, and in the back of my mind wanted to eventually write about it as a perfect song, but it kept slipping away. It had been rekindled recently when I came upon a beautiful rendition performed by Chris Thile and The Punch Brothers during a broadcast of Live From Here. I present to you both Gordon’s and The Punch Brothers’ versions.

Chew on it and comment.