The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
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The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
Single by Gordon Lightfoot
from the album Summertime Dream
"The House You Live In"
ReleasedAugust 1976
Format7-inch 45 rpm record
RecordedDecember 1975
StudioEastern Sound Studios, Toronto
  • 6:32 (album version)
  • 5:57 (single edit)
Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot singles chronology
"Rainy Day People"
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
"Race Among the Ruins"

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a song written, composed, and performed by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to commemorate the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Lightfoot drew his inspiration from Newsweek article on the event, "The Cruelest Month", which it published in its November 24, 1975, issue.[1] Lightfoot considers this song to be his finest work.[2]

Appearing originally on Lightfoot's 1976 album Summertime Dream, the single version hit number 1 in his native Canada (in the RPM national singles survey) on November 20, 1976, barely a year after the disaster.[3] In the United States, it reached number 1 in Cashbox and number 2 for two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 (behind Rod Stewart's "Tonight's The Night"), making it Lightfoot's second-most-successful single behind "Sundown". Overseas it was at best a minor hit, peaking at number 40 in the UK Singles Chart.[4]

The song is written in Dorian mode.[5]

Lightfoot re-recorded the song in 1988 for the compilation album Gord's Gold, Vol. 2.

Artistic license

The song contains a few artistic omissions and paraphrases. In a later interview aired on Canadian commercial radio, Lightfoot recounted how he had agonised while trying to pen the lyrics over possible inaccuracies until Lenny Waronker, his long-time producer and friend, finally removed his writer's block simply by advising him to play to his artistic strengths and "just tell a story". On the other hand, Lightfoot's personal passion for recreational sailing on the Great Lakes[6] informs his ballad's verses throughout.

  • According to the song, the Edmund Fitzgerald was bound "fully loaded for Cleveland". In fact, the ship was heading for Detroit, where it was set to discharge its cargo of taconite iron ore pellets before docking in Cleveland for the winter.[7]
  • Capt. Ernest McSorley had stated in his last radio transmission before the ship sank that he and the crew were "holding our own". What the cook or any other crew member said or did not say will never be known.
  • The "old cook" in the song was actually a replacement for this particular voyage, as the normal cook was too ill to make the trip.
  • Lightfoot refers to Mariners' Church of Detroit as "The Maritime Sailors' Cathedral" in the lyrics.
  • Lightfoot says that the bell was rung 29 times, once for each crew member aboard the ship. Internet sources often incorrectly claim that the bell was also rung once more in honour of all people who had lost their lives at sea, for a total of 30 times. Reverend Richard W. Ingalls, Sr., rector of Mariners' Church, tolled the bell 29 times, not 30.[8][9] The practice of tolling a bell an additional time for all lives lost at sea began in memorial services following 1975.
  • In a later live recording, Lightfoot recounts that a parishioner of the church informed him that the church is not "musty". From that time, instead of singing "In a musty old hall...", he now sings "In a rustic old hall..."[10]
  • In March 2010, Lightfoot changed a line during live performances to reflect new findings that there was no crew error involved in the sinking. The line originally read, "At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said..."; it is now sung as "At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said...". Lightfoot learned about the new research when contacted for permission to use his song for a History Channel documentary that aired on March 31, 2010. Lightfoot has stated that he has no intention of changing the original copyrighted lyrics; instead from now on, he will simply sing the new ones during live performances.[11]

Chart performance


The song was recorded in December 1975 at Eastern Sound,[18] a recording studio made out of two Victorian houses at 48 Yorkville Avenue in a then-beatnik district of downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The famous studio, which also recorded Rush, Cat Stevens, Bruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix, was later torn down and replaced by a parking lot.[19]

The song was the first commercial early digital multi-track recording tracked on the prototype 3M 32-track digital recorder, a novel technology for the time.

Pee Wee Charles and Terry Clements came up with "the haunting guitar and steel riffs" on a "second take" during the evening session.[20]

"Lightfoot cleared the studio and killed all the lights save the one illuminating his parchment of scribbled words" when recording his vocal part.[21]

Derivative works

The Canadian art-rock group The Rheostatics recorded a version of the song for their 1991 album Melville.[22]

In 1995, two decades after Lightfoot's original song was written, singer-songwriter Camille West recorded a parody song with a similar rhythm titled "The Nervous Wreck of Edna Fitzgerald", about a well-to-do family's disastrous day at sea. She recorded and released it on her album Mother Tongue (subtitled "Maternal Madness, Month by Month") that year.[23] Ten years later, after she had joined the band Four Bitchin' Babes, she and the band performed the song live, prefacing it with the comment, "With apologies to Gordon Lightfoot." It was included on their album of that year, Gabby Road.[24]

Executive producer Paul Gross wanted to use the song for the Due South episode "Mountie on the Bounty". Lightfoot agreed, but only if Gross gained approval from the families of all the men who lost their lives in the wreck. Gross and Jay Semko instead created a song about a fictional shipwreck on the Great Lakes--"32 Down on the Robert McKenzie".[25]

NRBQ frequently performed "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" live, though in a less than serious manner. Video shows vocalist Terry Adams, reading from a lyrics sheet, chuckling as his voice cracks, while audience members throw debris at the stage.[26] They did this to mock the song, not as a serious cover version.[27]

The song "Back Home in Derry", with lyrics by Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, was set to the tune of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".[28] The song, which is about the penal transportation of Irishmen in the 19th century to Van Diemen's Land (modern day Tasmania), was first recorded by Christy Moore on his 1984 album Ride On, and has since been covered by a number of Irish artists.

A filk adaptation of the song called "The Ballad of Apollo XIII," with new lyrics by William Warren Jr, was performed by Julia Ecklar on the 1983 album Minus Ten and Counting.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Lightfoot, Gordon. "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Song Lyrics". Gordon Lightfoot.
  2. ^ DeYoung, Bill (March 2, 2010). "If You Could Read His Mind: A Conversation with Folk Music Legend Gordon Lightfoot". Connect Savannah.
  3. ^ "Item Display. RPM". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 2010.
  4. ^ "Official Singles Chart Top 50: 23 January 1977 - 29 January 1977". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2016.
  5. ^ Perone, James E. (2012). The Album: A Guide to Pop Music's Most Provocative, Influential, and Important Creations. Santa Barbara, California, 2012: Praeger. ISBN 9780313379062.
  6. ^ Weiss, William R. "This Goose Is Golden". Retrieved 2017.
  7. ^ Wert, Ray (November 10, 2011). "Remembering the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 36 Years Later". Jalopnik.
  8. ^ McInnis, Joseph (1998). Fitzgerald's Storm: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Thunder Bay Press. p. 62. ISBN 1-882376-53-6.
  9. ^ Schumacher, Michael (2005). Mighty Fitz. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 94. ISBN 1-58234-647-X.
  10. ^ Balunda, George (November 2010). "Mariners' Church of Detroit". Hour Detroit. Retrieved 2011.
  11. ^ Stevenson, Jane (March 26, 2010). "Lightfoot Changes 'Edmund Fitzgerald' Lyric". Toronto Sun.
  12. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970-1992. Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  13. ^ Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1990 - ISBN 0-89820-089-X
  14. ^ "Cash Box Top Singles - 1976". 1963-12-20. Retrieved .
  15. ^ "Top Singles - Volume 26, No. 14 & 15, January 08 1977". RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on March 19, 2016. Retrieved 2016.
  16. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1999). Pop Annual. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. ISBN 0-89820-142-X.
  17. ^ "The CASH BOX Year-End Charts: 1976; TOP 100 POP SINGLES (As published in the December 25, 1976, issue)". Archived from the original on October 21, 2014. Retrieved 2016.
  18. ^ "Album Recording Notes". Lighfoot!. October 23, 2016.
  19. ^ "Recording Studios used in Toronto: Eastern Sound". Bruce Cockburn + Toronto - A Historical Tour. October 23, 2016.
  20. ^ Charles, Peewee (October 23, 2016). "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald....37 years ago today!!". The Steel Guitar Forum.
  21. ^ Treece, Tom (October 23, 2016). "Me and 'The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald'". But What Do I Know? Vol.1 Page 403.
  22. ^ "Rheostatics". Retrieved 2015.
  23. ^ "Mother Tongue (Maternal Madness Month By Month)". Retrieved 2014.
  24. ^ "Gabby Road". Retrieved 2014.
  25. ^ Pressland, Angela. "Paul's Music". Retrieved 2016.
  26. ^ "NRBQ - Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Retrieved 2016 – via YouTube.
  27. ^ "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Retrieved 2016.
  28. ^ "Back Home In Derry - Christy Moore". 17 February 2012. Retrieved 2018.
  29. ^ Minus Ten and Counting liner notes

External links

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