The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was shipwrecked in Lake Superior 45 years ago on 10 November 1975. Like many people, I became aware of the tragedy by way of Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song was released in 1976 and hit #1 on the pop charts in Lightfoot’s native Canada. It also spent two weeks at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the States. In an unfortunate juxtaposition, the song at #1 for those two weeks was Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night;” that night was certainly not “all right” for the 29-member crew who lost their lives in the wreck.
I first heard the song sometime in 1976 on my uncle’s brand-new Pioneer RT-2022 reel-to-reel tape deck. My uncle was a big outdoorsman at the time, a hifi buff and a huge Gord fan. The Lightfoot album Summertime Dream, on which “Edmund Fitzgerald” first appeared, was one of the first purchases he made to showcase his new gear. I loved to spend the night with him and my aunt at their house in Flint, Michigan and listen to music.
“Edmund Fitzgerald” gripped me from my first listen and never let go. The 6/8 time signature gives it the minstrel feel of an epic ballad. The simple chord structure, with a suspended chord followed by a minor chord, still sounds ominous. The pedal steel punctuates throughout, like the whistling cry of “the gales of November.” Gord wields a 12-string guitar and spins the yarn with the authority of a veteran storyteller.
I did once attend the memorial service at the Mariner’s Church of Detroit and heard them ring the bell 29 times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald. But nothing I’ve ever read, nor any place I’ve visited associated with the wreck, has ever captured my imagination quite like hearing the song that first time on the Pioneer deck at my uncle’s house. I sit on the shore of Lake Huron every summer, watching the freighters pass by, sometimes strumming the tune on my old acoustic. Be at peace, Captain McSorley and crew.