Have You Heard?: Gordon Lightfoot's "THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD" (1976)

Forty years ago today, on what was supposed to be a fairly routine run from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan, across icy cold Lake Superior, the mighty freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald and her entire crew of 29 hearty souls were lost when the ship, split in half and went down after encountering stormy seas.  The November 10, 1975 trek was scheduled to be the ship's last of the season before heading to safe harbor in Cleveland, Ohio and waiting out the winter. Two weeks later, on November 24th, Newsweek ran an article entitled The Cruelest Month, an accounting of several deadly maritime incidents on Lake Superior throughout history during the month of November, including the recent Fitzgerald tragedy. Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot read the article and was moved to write a song about the final hours of the ship and her crew.  He wrestled with keeping the lyrics factual but was given the grace of artistic license by his producer and soon the song was recorded in December 1975.  It was included on Lightfoot's Summertime Dream album, released in June 1976, with the haunting ballad following as a single in August 1976.
According to WLS's weekly music surveys, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" broke into the Top 45 with the survey dated September 11, 1976, debuting at number 38, higher than its fellow debuts "Getaway" by Earth,Wind & Fire (#40) and "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees & his Cast Of Idiots (#44).  WLS is probably where I first heard the song and it haunted the tail end of my Summer and my first days as a fifth grader at Maplewood Elementary School, Rantoul, Illinois and pretty much every October since then.  I bought the 45 shortly thereafter and was always struck that the song lasted almost six minutes.  As it was then, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" remains the single longest song I own on a 45.
Over on the Billboard Hot 100, the song debuted at number 70 on August 28, 1976, the highest position of ten debuting singles that week.  In its fifth week on the chart, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" debuted on American Top 40, at number 38. On November 20th, the song's thirteenth week on the Hot 100, it peaked at number 2, where it stayed a second week before beginning to sail down the chart. Its last week in the Top 40 was December 18th, when it docked at number 25.  After 21 weeks, the single paused at number 91 before leaving the Hot 100 the following week.  Despite its lengthy stay on the Hot 100, it failed to make the year-end Hot 100 List for both 1976 or 1977 - it was eligible for both lists due to the wonky way Billboard stopped counting singles for it's year end list in October.  "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" also peaked at number 3 on the Easy Listening chart, number 50 on the Hot Country Singles chart while reaching Number One on the Cash Box Top 100.  In Lightfoot's home country of Canada, the song topped both the RPM Pop and Country Singles charts.
For me, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" will always have a chilling, spooky effect due to the wonderful combination of Lightfoot's aged storyteller voice, his wonderfully poetic lyrics and the vaguely Celtic chiming guitars that provide the punctuation throughout the song. Every year as the sleeves on my shirts grow longer and seemingly every thing under the Sun that can be eaten or drunk is offered in a unnatural flavor known as "pumpkin spice", I feel the uncontrollable urge to hear this song not once but a bunch of times.  It gets me through both Halloween and Thanksgiving.  (I recently finished reading Dead Wake, Erik Larson's exquisitely detailed book of the final doomed voyage of the RMS Lusitania and while the story occurred more than sixty years prior to 1976, this song crept into my head on more than one occasion while engrossed deep in Larson's narrative.)  While I don't believe in ghosts or Native American superstitions, I fear I shall be forever haunted by this eerie song and I wouldn't want it any other way.

For an ever better story behind this song, go read THIS.

1 comment:

  1. I remember how this haunting song hit me hard as a kid growing up in the 70's, especially since my hometown was on one of the Great Lakes. Story songs like this really defined the era and it is a shame they somehow got lost over the decades.