Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

Hey, I don't care. You're sitting there saying, "What?! This old piece of singer-songwriter sludge from the 70s?" Damn straight. Out of all the storytelling songs released by innumerable oh-so-smooth-yet-somehow-still-moderately-authentic pop-folk artists during the 60s and 70s, this is my absolute favorite. My apologies to Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Jim Croce, Don McLean, Glen Campbell, Joni Mitchell, and all the rest, but Lightfoot has you beat. Do I have to mention where to find the recording? It was originally released on Lightfoot's 1976 Summertime Dream, but it's probably included on about a thousand compilations and anthologies by now. And the story? Besides the fact that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was actually heading to Detroit to deliver it's load of iron ore, and only after that was heading to Cleveland to dock for the winter, Lightfoot got pretty much everything right. I know--just read here.

I've visited the Upper Peninsula, and been to the Sault (Soo) Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, but never to the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Bay. Someday, perhaps. Maybe I'll sing the song for my kids if we ever make it. (Yes, if you're asking--I had pretty much the whole thing memorized by the time I was thirteen. FM radio will do these things for you.)

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore--26,000 tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most,
with a crew and a captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland--
and later that night when the ships bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feeling?

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
and a wave broke over the railing;
and every man knew, as the captain did, too,
t'was the witch of November come stealing.

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.

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck,
saying "Fellows, it's too rough to feed ya."
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in;
he said "Fellas, it's been good to know ya."

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.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd fifteen more miles behind her.

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings,
in the rooms of her ice water mansion;
old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams:
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her.
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
in the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral:
the church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early.


John B. said...

Russell, I've got your back on this one. Back in 2005, NPR commemorated the actual event with a story and a playing of the whole song. It'd been years and years since I'd last heard it, but this time around I was struck by the power of its melody as well as the words: its rhythms didn't just evoke sea chanties but matched up quite powerfully with much of the music from Mali that I'd just been getting into. It--the NPR piece, the song, the connections I was making, all of it--made for an incredibly-moving experience. Thanks for reminding me of it.

Clare Krishan said...

Here's a selection of YouTube treatments of

"Does anyone know
where the love of God goes
when the waves
turn the minutes to hours?"

[ @ 3:23 mins in all three clips ]:

Perhaps that's a suitable question for the candidates at the debates?