The Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot…Song #23/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip

As 1967 drew near, many plans were set into motion to mark the occasion of Canada’s 100th anniversary of becoming an independent country. For my family, we embarked on a cross-Canada tour that involved the three of us taking the train from Sydney, Nova Scotia, traveling all the way westward to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then driving back home in our family car that my father had shipped out to Vancouver on the train along with us. At the time of our trip, I was only three years old so I was not privy to any of the planning that had gone into organizing such a journey. However, with the hindsight of history to guide me, I know that my mom and dad were commemorating Canada’s centennial by traversing this great land using one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever: the creation of the Canadian National Railroad. Our history books like to wax nostalgic about the creation of the railroad being one of the great acts of national unification. All that I knew at the time was that being on a train for over ten days seemed like fun to me. Some of the earliest memories in my life are of the train stopping in the Rockies and me looking at how big the mountains seemed and how cool and fresh the air felt. From Stanley Park in Vancouver, to the endless wheat fields of the Prairies, the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Expo 67 in Montreal, the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and finally, back across the Maritimes to Cape Breton Island once again. We were home in this great land we call Canada.

Canadian singer, Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Lightfoot.

Our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) had planned a year long series of broadcasts that were aimed at telling “our story” as a country. To start it all off, the CBC contacted singer Gordon Lightfoot and asked him to compose a song about Canada. Lightfoot was not just a great singer and songwriter but he was a natural storyteller. So, when Gord put pen to paper, he opted to tell the story of the making of the railroad that ran from east to west. He called his song “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”. The song debuted on January 1st, 1967. It was well received by many in Canada and has gone on to become one of Gordon Lightfoot’s signature songs in a catalogue filled with hits. Lightfoot created the structure for the song based upon a US song called “The Civil War Trilogy” that was originally sung there by The Limelighters. In Gord’s song, there are slow parts and speedier parts. This cadence was meant to resemble the chug-chug-chugging of a steam locomotive, which would have been the sort of train in use back when the railroad was built in the 1800s. For many who enjoy this song, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy stands as a testament to a moment in time when our nation was united and strong. For that reason, the song evoked a sense of national pride whenever it was played.

About fifty Chinese labourers posing by a segment of railroad track that they had built as part of the original Canadian National Railroad.
Chinese “navvies” who worked on the building of the Canadian National Railroad. Many lost their lives due to the dangerous nature of their work and to poor safety standards at the time.

But as we are becoming more aware, the telling of history is a fickle thing. Gordon Lightfoot deserves credit for dedicating a large portion of “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” to the navvies (or the immigrant Chinese workers), whose labour helped build each length of track. It was dangerous, back-breaking work and many Chinese labourers lost their lives completing the “national dream”. The navvies were paid less than English-speaking workers and they were required to perform the most dangerous tasks (such as blasting through the Rocky Mountains to make tunnels). It is generally acknowledged that 3-4 Chinese workers died for every mile of track created. Knowing the vastness of Canadian geography as we do, the death toll among Chinese workers stretches into the tens of thousands. In gratitude for the heroic nature of their work, the Chinese labourers were fired en masse once the last spike was driven in Craigellachie, British Columbia and were forced to find their own transportation back to wherever they were going to live next. Those workers were always considered expendable. But, at least, their existence was acknowledged by Gordon Lightfoot in his song, so there is that, I suppose.

But, the same can’t be said for the Indigenous Peoples of this land. The history of Canada is replete with example after example of Indigenous Peoples being on the short end of national expansionism. I want you to stop and think back to a time just prior to the arrival of European explorers such as Jacques Cartier, Giovanni Caboto and Samuel de Champlain. In those pre-contact times, the whole of the land that is now considered to be Canada was actually populated by Indigenous nations. These Nations existed from sea to sea to sea. Each Nation had its own customs and governance. All existed with the foundational thought that they were not above nature and animal life but were as one with it. Bison and beavers thrived at this time. The idea of taking what you need but no more, was a guiding principle that allowed the various Indigenous Peoples to survive for thousands of years. And then came the Europeans.

About fifty workers watch as a rich white man in a beard and tip hat hammers in the final spike to complete the building of the Canadian National Railroad at Craigellachie, British Columbia.
The “Last Spike” being driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia.

Say what you want about European settlers, but the actual facts from History show that they viewed this new land as theirs for the taking. The Indigenous Peoples were merely an obstacle to be overcome, either by negotiated treaty or by force. Even those negotiated treaties were very one-sided, with the settlers getting the best land and access to resources, while the Indigenous Peoples were shunted off to the side…of the land that they had lived on successfully for an eternity. One of the most lethal instruments of colonization of Indigenous lands was the Canadian National Railroad. Its creation was the political excuse used to appropriate Indigenous lands, especially across the Prairies and into British Columbia. It was the political excuse used to send troops into the Prairies so as to “safeguard” the work of railroad building and to help acquire additional territory along the way. It was opposition to the railroad, and more specifically, to the appropriation of Indigenous land that caused Louis Riel to take his famous stands at The Red River Valley (in what is now Manitoba) and later at Batoche (in what is now Saskatchewan), for which he paid the ultimate price with his life by being sentenced to death for treason. Much of what happened to Louis Riel and the Metis Peoples reverberated into Quebec and was the start of French nationalism there. The politics of the railroad entering British Columbia helped convince those settlers to officially enter into Confederation as the westernmost province in Canada. It goes on and on. The creation of the Canadian National Railroad has become synonymous with Canadian history, in general.

And so it was back in 1967, as the words of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” played out to great acclaim, my parents were inspired to recreate that journey and relive the national dream, creating memories to last a lifetime for themselves and their young son. The beauty and the vastness of the land is a memory that I retain to this day. As a toddler, I had no idea of the politics of railroad building, of the sacrifices made by so many underpaid Chinese labourers, nor of the devastating impact of the railroad on the lives of Indigenous Peoples ever since it went across this land. But I do know now. While it may not be for me to insist that those of you who read this rise up in anger and in protest, I think it is my place to insist that we, as the descendants of those who colonized this land, do our part to understand the true nature of its history. When we do, it forces us to regard the railroad as much more than a feat of engineering worth celebrating in song. I imagine that the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” must be a difficult song for Indigenous Peoples to have to listen to. I apologize in advance for any hurt that this post causes. As we make our way through the songs listed as being part of this Great Canadian Road Trip of mine, we should always be aware of the history of this land and what our role has been in shaping it as it exists today. It is, quite literally, the very least we can do.

The link to the video for the song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot can be found here. ***Lyrics version can be found here.

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

The link to the official website for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here. *(As you may know, this Commission reported mainly on the impact of the residential school system but, in doing so, it touched on many aspects of the impact of colonization upon the Indigenous Peoples of this land such as land appropriation, forced cultural assimilation, The Indian Act and much, much more). Its report and recommendations should be required reading for all who live in this country called Canada, imo).

The link to an article from the Globe and Mail newspaper about the use of the railroad as a tool of colonization and why, in reply, so many Indigenous protests involve railroad blockades can be found here.

The link to the official website for the town of Craigellachie, British Columbia can be found here. *(Craigellachie was the original terminus of the Canadian National Railroad. It was where the “last spike” was driven).

**As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

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

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, 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, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

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.