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Video: Gordon Lightfoot explains why he wrote ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’

Nov 07, 2019 02:54PM ● By Editor

Gordon Lightfoot talks about the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank 44 years ago this Sunday. Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

From Boreal Community Media - November 7, 2019

The annual Edmound Fitzgerald Beacon Lighting will be help at Split Rock Lighthouse this Sunday from 11am to 6pm.  This annual event commemorates the sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and the loss of her 29 crewmembers on November 10, 1975. It is also a time to reflect on the memory of all lives lost in Great Lakes shipwrecks.

The lighthouse, fog signal building, and visitor center will be open. Costumed interpreters will greet visitors and provide historic site and shipwreck information. Throughout the afternoon, visitors can view a film about the Edmund Fitzgerald in the visitor center.

At 4:30 pm, the lighthouse will close temporarily while the names of the crewmembers are read to the tolling of a ship's bell. Following the ceremony, the beacon will be lit, and the tower will be open again to tour.

This is the only opportunity each year when visitors can climb the tower after dark and see the lit beacon.

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk of - November 10, 2019

The bottom of the Great Lakes are littered with the broken remains of thousands of ships and their crews.

But the wreck everyone remembers is the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Forty-four years ago this week, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, carrying 29 men to their deaths on Nov. 10, 1975.

It’s recalled, in part, because it’s the most recent disaster on the Great Lakes. But it’s also remembered because recording artist Gordon Lightfoot immortalized it in song.

"It's a folk song," Lightfoot told a Grand Rapids audience before launching into the song at DeVos Performance Hall in May 2013. "But it's a true story that we all know well in these parts of Michigan."

The Canadian singer and songwriter recorded "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on his 1976 album "Summertime Dream." The single hit No. 1 in Canada and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States.

The song, nominated for two Grammy Awards, would go on to become one of Lightfoot's biggest hits, topped only by his 1974 song, "Sundown."

Prior to the disaster, Lightfoot had been working on a melody, based on an old Irish folk song. It would become "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

During an online chat for Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) in August 2014, Lightfoot explained what he did after hearing about the disaster.

An article in Newsweek magazine two weeks after the disaster was the biggest inspiration for Lightfoot to complete the lyrics to go with the melody, which morphed into the greatest "story song" of his career -- a song he considers one of his more significant contributions to music.

During the final voyage of "The Fitz," a storm pushed by massive winds and waves battered the ship until it began taking on water and listing to one side. The ship sank so quickly, the precise reasons why have remained a mystery.

Though Lightfoot’s lyrics tell a true story, errors or creative liberties occur. The Edmund Fitzgerald, which departed Superior, Wisc., on Nov. 9, was headed for Detroit, not Cleveland, as the song goes. The historic Mariners’ Church of Detroit is dubbed “The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral” in the song.

Lightfoot has revised his lyrics for public performances. After a parishioner objected to him referring to Mariners' Church as "a musty old hall," Lightfoot began singing "a rustic old hall."

The original lyrics refer to a hatchway caving in shortly before the disaster. But in 2010, an investigation for the National Geographic Channel's TV show "Dive Detectives" suggested three rogue waves broke the ship in half.

Lightfoot soon revised the lyric from:

"At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in, he said, 'Fellas, it's been good to know ya'"


"At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said, 'Fellas it's been good to know ya.""

That brought relief to the mother and daughter of crew members in charge of manning the hatches.

"With the mystery resolved, I made the women very happy. The new line takes the onus off the deckhands," Lightfoot told MLive and the Saginaw News prior to a May 2013 appearance at The Dow in Saginaw.

Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2012, one of fewer than 400 inductees, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Webb, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and Hal David and Burt Bacharach, among others.

Lightfoot experienced his own brush with death when he suffered an abdominal aneurysm in 2002 that left him in a coma for five weeks, followed by three months’ confinement in bed.

It would be 28 months before he returned to the stage, Lightfoot said in a 2013 interview with MLive and The Grand Rapids Press.

"It's the longest I ever went without a gig," he said. "I almost died, so I look back on it with a sense of humor."

To read the original article, follow this link to the website.

Watch Gordon perform The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" live in concert

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