Behind The Song: Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”

Gordon Lightfoot has been around for longer than most folks realize, with hit records in his native Canada in the 1960s and a number one as a country songwriter with Marty Robbins in 1965. He eventually found success as an artist in America with such great tunes as “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Carefree Highway,” but may be best known, both artistically and commercially, for his story song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

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Lightfoot wrote the song about the USS Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that sank in a fierce Lake Superior storm in November of 1975, taking 29 men and a 26,000-ton payload of iron ore to the bottom. While it was massively popular in 1976, this song wouldn’t stand a chance on today’s radio, not even on AAA stations, as its seven verses on the edited single version clocked in at almost six minutes. It runs even longer than that on the album cut with a little more guitar and pedal steel than the single. There are no choruses or bridges, just a couple instrumental bars between some of the verses and an instrumental outro.

Lightfoot spent time on the Great Lakes himself, so he knew a little about the subject, and the song was very factual and timely, following the ship’s sinking by less than a year. But Lightfoot also takes some artistic license. For instance, when he sings Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms/ When they left fully loaded for Cleveland/ Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang/ Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?, he was apparently trying to approximate a rhyme, as it was no secret the vessel was actually on its way to Detroit, not Cleveland. Lightfoot also makes an important character of the ship’s cook and what he told the men on board, where there actually would have been no way of knowing what the cook did or didn’t say or do on that fateful day. But Lightfoot’s embellishment only makes a good song even better.

This song also probably wouldn’t get past the first minute of a “pitch-to-publisher” session today, especially if it were accompanied by what would be a terrifyingly long lyric sheet. But each verse was important to the overall story, which might help explain why (at least most) radio programmers of the day found it in their hearts not to chop two or three verses to make way for more ads. And while many people believe that a song is supposed to say as much as possible in as few as words as necessary, there’s no reason for that to be a rule. Proust and Hugo certainly never let word limits stop them in their novels. This song was intended to be art first and commerce second, if at all.

Lightfoot has revised a couple lines through the years in live performances, but the tale he tells is still basically the same. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” holds up as one of the great story songs of all time, and probably the best thing to ever come from the pen of this songwriting legend.

Photo by Arnielee via Wikipedia. Reproduced under Creative Commons License.

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