Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tolling the Bell to Honor the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

On November 10, 1975 the freight ship S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on  Lake Superior. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was the worst loss on the Great Lakes, as the crew of all 29 sailors perished along with the $24 million freighter and a cache of 26 tons of taconite. The Edmund Fitzgerald carried its cargo of iron ore from mines in Duluth, Minnesota heading toward mills in the lower Great Lakes.  During the vessel’s final voyage, the “Mighty Fitz” confronted a mighty winter storm in Canadian waters with near hurricane force winds and waves of up to 35 feet high. The crew gallantly braved the gale force winds for a day and a half before succumbing to the stormy waters.  It is speculated that most of the crew were swept off the deck  by the massive waves before the full broke and the ship sank.

This maritime tragedy was immortalized in the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, which was written and composed by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in 1976.  In the midst of album oriented rock acts and brief advent of disco, this Dorian mode epic ballad nearly topped the American Billboard charts as well as conquering the Canadian charts.  The chart prominence may have been aided by Canadian Content requirements for music played on “the Big 8" CKLW-AM (Windsor, Ont.), which was a top rated station at the time in Detroit, Toledo as well as Cleveland.

Lightfoot was inspired to write the ballad after reading an article about the sinking of the Big Fitz in Newsweek. The song was a straightforward recounting of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but there was some artistic license.  Obviously, there was no way to know the crew’s final moments. There also some were slight inaccuracies, as the ship was actually bound for Zug Island (near Detroit) but eventually it was supposed to have docked in Cleveland for the winter. And Mariners’ Church (a.k.a. “The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral”) was not a musty old hall in Detroit where they prayed. Lightfoot has strived to correct some of these details during recent live performances.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald still resonates after 36 years as the laconic chronicle of the heroism of the lost sailors.  Few epic poems permeate the American consciousness like Lightfoot’s magnus opus. There are numerous cultural references to the tune.  A character in the film High Fidelity (2000) declared in the Top Five on songs on death.

The song has been covered many times.  A version that captures the haunting, surreal nature of sense of the surprise storm is by the Dandy Warhols from their Black album (2004). This may be inspired by the fact that the Daddy Warhol’s lead singer was related to one of the Big Fitz lost crew.

On the eve of Veterans Day, as we also celebrate the anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps, it is worthy to toll the bell of honor 29 times for the valor of the lost crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

[This piece originally ran on]