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"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. Lightfoot considers this song to be his finest work.
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. In the United States, it reached number 1 in Cashbox and number 2 for two weeks in the BillboardHot 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.
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 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.
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 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. 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..."
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.
The song was recorded in December 1975 at Eastern Sound, 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.
The song was the first commercial early digital multi-track recording tracked on the prototype 3M32-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.
"Lightfoot cleared the studio and killed all the lights save the one illuminating his parchment of scribbled words" when recording his vocal part.
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. 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.
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".
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. They did this to mock the song, not as a serious cover version.