The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #19: *The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #19: *The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As some of you may remember from my previous post about “Blown’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, *(which you can read here), Song #19 on my original list had been reserved for the beautiful and important song, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. However, in writing the post for “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Dylan, it became clear that his song and Cooke’s song were inextricably linked and, as a result, I wrote about “A Change is Gonna Come” already. Because that happened so unexpectedly, I was left to scramble to find a replacement some worthy of being all the way up at slot #19.

So, I began my search by looking up the best selling songs of all-time, to see if I had missed including any and, as it turned out, I had. In fact, I had completely overlooked the third biggest selling single ever…..a song with over 30 million in sales……a song bigger than any Beatles tune….it was, “In The Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, of all things! I am not sure why this novelty-type song has sold so well but, it seemed like an interesting song choice to pop onto the list. Well, it was an interesting choice until I paid closer attention to the lyrics, which promote misogyny, as well as, drinking and driving. So, I moved on in my search. In the end, I made my own call and went with my favourite story-song of all-time, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. This song probably should have already been on the list. It’s omission was something that was bothering me so, I am rectifying my own mistake by placing it here. Whether it merits being a Top-20 song of all-time is open for debate but, as I have said many times throughout this countdown, the rankings don’t really matter. These are all good songs and I am here to tell their stories. That has been true all along and it is true today, too. So, get ready for the story of one of the greatest disasters to ever happen on the Great Lakes, as told by one of Canada’s best storytellers ever, Mr. Gordon Lightfoot.

Much of Canada’s national identity comes from water. We are bound on three sides by water; the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Much of our history involves that water plus, the abundance of water that lay between the coasts; the fabled Northwest Passage, The St. Lawrence Seaway (that cuts into the heart of our Land), Hudson’s Bay (and all it has meant to our Indigenous Peoples and to colonialism), the great rivers of the west, the Fraser and MacKenzie and, of course, the five Great Lakes that lay at Canada’s middle. We are a nation of ships and the sailors who sail them. So, when a marine disaster happens we, as a nation, feel the loss as if it was our own.

The Edmund B. Fitzgerald was a real ship. It was a bulk carrier that plied the waters of the Great Lakes, carrying iron and other materials, back and forth, from one end of the Great Lakes to the other. Because of the nature of weather around the Great Lakes, maritime traffic tends to be limited to the warmer Spring to Late Fall months of the year. So, as the Edmund B. Fitzgerald was heading from Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan, with a load of iron ore in November of 1975, it was making its final run of the season.

The weather at that time of year on Lake Superior can change in an instant. Temperature changes brought on by the arrival of cold fronts from the north cause wind speeds to increase. The higher the wind, the higher the waves can become. For long bulk carriers, like the Edmund B. Fitzgerald, the physics of cresting over wave tops reaching twenty or thirty meters in height can cause great stress to be applied over the length of the hull of a ship. Too much torque applied for too long a period of time in rough weather can cause catastrophic damage in rare instances, as stress fractures may begin to appear in the superstructure of the ship. And so it was that “the gales of November came early” and the Edmund B. Fitzgerald found itself fighting for its life that November day. The ship had made it to within fifteen or twenty miles from the tip of White Fish Bay in Michigan, when it went down with all hands; a total of twenty-nine lives lost.

When the news of this tragedy was reported, Gordon Lightfoot read the reports with interest, as many Canadians did. He was disturbed by how few details there were and how the story seemed to not be receiving the respect that he felt such a tragedy was owed. So, doing his own research, Lightfoot created the lyrics to one of the great storytelling songs ever written. The melody of his classic tune had been kicking around in his head for many years because it was based upon an old Irish dirge. But now, with the story of this great tragedy fresh in his mind, Gordon Lightfoot was able to create a seven-minute masterpiece that, according to him, accorded the lost sailors and their families the respect he felt they all deserved.

It is amazing to think that a song of that length and solemnity even made it to air, let alone that it became a #1 hit in Canada and in the US. But, it did. It went on to become Gordon Lightfoot’s second biggest selling song of all-time, trailing only “Sundown” in sales. Gordon Lightfoot, for his career, is a lot like Anne Murray. They both went to America and were warmly received and achieved much success, in the form of #1 hits but, unlike Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, they did not make America their home; returning to Canada, where they spent the bulk of their careers, earning legendary status along the way. For his career, Gordon Lightfoot has sold over 10 million albums and has been inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Canadian Hall of Fame, too.

Lightfoot has sung the song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for over forty years now and has, from time to time, altered the lyrics during live performances, as new information has been made available. For example, when he first wrote the song, a preliminary investigation into the sinking had mentioned crew error for failing to secure all hatches properly thus, allowing water a route to enter the ship. But, once the wreck was actually discovered and explored by diving craft, it was determined that the hatches were all in place and, as such, the crew were exonerated in absentia. Because of this news, Lightfoot now has changed the original lines that talked about “the main hatch way gave in” so as to take the onus off of those who actually did do their jobs properly. He, also, used some artistic license along the way in how he said that the ship was headed for Cleveland (instead of Detroit, where it was really headed) and how he romanticized the name of the Maritime Hall in Detroit, which he called, “The Maritime Sailor’s Cathedral” which, in both cases, was done to help with rhyming and the flow of the song. But, overall, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” stands as a musical monument to one of the Great Lakes’ greatest tragedies. It is respectful ode of remembrance that honours the memories of those lost that November day. As storytelling goes, it is my favourite story song. As I like to believe, the proper length of a song/movie/post is the amount of time it takes to properly let the story tell itself. For Gordon Lightfoot, that time was seven minutes.

The link to the video for the song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Gordon Lightfoot, can be found here.

The link to a video about the sinking of the Edmund B. Fitzgerald and the discovery of the wreck, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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