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‘Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald’ still powerful

25 years later, Gordon Lightfoot's ballad of downed ship comforts families
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's an evocative song that defies description: Haunting yet comforting, wistful yet powerful, mythic yet real.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was among Gordon Lightfoot's greatest hits, an unlikely Top 40 smash about the deaths of 29 men aboard an ore carrier that plunged to the floor of Lake Superior during a nasty storm on Nov. 10, 1975.

"In large measure, his song is the reason we remember the Edmund Fitzgerald," said maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse. "That single ballad has made such a powerful contribution to the legend of the Great Lakes."

Three decades after the tragedy, the Fitzgerald remains the most famous of the 6,000 ships that disappeared on the Great Lakes.

Lightfoot's initial knowledge of the sinking came from an article in Newsweek. The singer/songwriter, after reading the piece, was inspired to write one of the signature songs of his lengthy career.

Clocking in at 6 1/2 minutes, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" appeared on the 1976 album "Summertime Dream" and eventually reached No. 2 on the pop charts. It spent 21 straight weeks on the charts, and still lingers like the memory of the doomed craft.

The song remains a part of Lightfoot's set list; he played it last summer at Detroit's Fox Theater, where the crowd included Ruth Hudson, the mother of a deckhand from the Fitzgerald.

Therapeutic for families
Hudson, who met backstage with Lightfoot, has become friendly with the singer over the years. The North Ridgefield, Ohio, resident said the song is therapeutic to the families of the crew.

"It's kept the men and the memorial to the men alive," said Hudson. "I think it's been good for the families. They have felt comfort in it. I have talked to just about all of them, and I haven't talked to anyone who didn't like the song."

Lightfoot declined to be interviewed for this story. But he told The Associated Press in 2000 that "Wreck" was "a song you can't walk away from."

"You can't walk away from the people (victims), either," he said. "The song has a sound and total feel all of its own."

The structure of the song is simple: 14 verses, each four lines long. Its 450-plus words are carefully chosen, delivered over a haunting melody.

The song tells the story of the Fitzgerald's fatal voyage, which began Nov. 9 in Superior, Wis., where it was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore for a trip to Detroit.

A day later it was being pounded by 90 mph wind gusts and 30-foot waves.

Ernest McSorley, the ship's captain, radioed a trailing freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, and said that the Fitzgerald had sustained topside damage and was listing. At 7:10 p.m., he announced, "We are holding our own."

But the ship soon disappeared from radar without issuing an SOS. After a few days, a vessel with sonar was able to locate the Fitzgerald only 15 miles from the safe haven of Whitefish Bay.

Transports listeners to fateful nightLightfoot's song does more than recite the facts. It transports the listener on board the Fitzgerald that fateful night:

"The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait/When the gales of November came slashing/When afternoon came it was freezing rain/In the face of a hurricane west wind."

And then the crescendo:

"The captain wired in he had water coming in/And the good ship and crew was in peril/And later that night when his lights went out of sight/Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

Several memorial events are planned to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the sinking, including a ceremony at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and a service at the Mariners' Church of Detroit.

Undoubtedly, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" will be heard and discussed.

"Any bit of literature, prose or poetry that magnifies the loss of loved ones is so dramatic," said Bishop Richard W. Ingalls of the Mariners' Church. "Gordon Lightfoot's song definitely has given it a life that seems not to end."