Gordon Lightfoot, today’s birthday boy, is 76 years old. One of his biggest hits was today’s song, released in 1976 to commemorate the sinking of the biggest freighter so far sunk in the U.S.’s biggest lake, Lake Superior, on November 10, 1975. The song appeared on Summertime Dream, a very good album released in August, 1976, but the single of today’s song stuck at #2 on the Billboard chart for two weeks in November, 1976. So, this is a November song all the way, with that great line “and the iron boats go, as the mariners all know, with the gales of November remembered.”
Ah, yes, the gales of November. If you’re a landlubber, they can be bad enough. But if you trust to the waves in this month, then that “legend [that] lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee” might give you pause: “The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead / When the skies of November turn gloomy.”
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank much as Lightfoot narrates it did, in this, his best song. It tells the story in a gripping manner that marries a certain amount of news-account fact (Lightfoot was inspired to write the song from an account of the disaster he read in Newsweek) with great folkloric coloring. Together, the feel of actual event coupled with emblematic event is irresistible. On the level of accuracy, there are some changes made for poetic effect—the ship was bound for Detroit, not Cleveland, when it sank (Cleveland was its ultimate destination after its delivery of iron pellets in Detroit), but Cleveland rhymes better than Detroit with “Could it be the North Wind they’d been feelin’”? (Though, of course, Lightfoot mentions Detroit as well, as the place where a funeral event takes place.)
The best “you are there” bit comes with that old cook, where Lightfoot uses a cliché of the crusty old salt to great effect: “When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck / Saying, ‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya’ / At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said / ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’” It works because the idea of the everyday is sustained by taking meals. Once it’s too rough to eat, it’s not good. And then it gets worse. His grim grasp of that fact—they’re doomed—is delivered with an almost cheery fatalism.
But that very element—fatalism, in both cheery and grim varieties—is what makes the song seem folkloric, as though about fictional events or events so long in the past that they have become common currency in the general imagination. But the event was less than a year old when the song appeared on Summertime Dream and a year old when the single hit the airwaves. That makes for opportunities for friction between those who were affected by the event directly, and those who just love the song as an epic account of an epic disaster. And don’t forget the Seventies were the heyday of the “disaster movie.” Lightfoot hit a zeitgeist on this one.
Which may seem self-serving on his part, but I don’t think it is. He’s exercising the right of the songwriter to set any event to song if the event can sustain it. And clearly this unfortunate sinking fits the bill. And he’s respectful of all—that “crew and good captain well seasoned”—and doesn’t look for human error or bad judgment or anything like that (the libelous details). Instead, he knows who the villain is: “’Twas the witch of November come stealin’.” That “’twas,” just like the “Gitche Gumee” cribbed from “The Song of Hiawatha,” indicate an antiquated sensibility, one that wants this tale to join those other “legends from the Chippewa on down.” All 29 members of the crew perished, but the manner of their deaths has now placed them in the annals of legend, of “story and song,” as we say.
Lightfoot comes third in the trio of Canadians this month—joining Joni Mitchell and Neil Young—though his career began before theirs, with some professional activity in 1962 and, like Dylan and Cohen, writing songs that others recorded. In 1965 he was launched, with Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, at the helm of his career, and he remained in the “traditional songster” category long after Dylan had moved on from there. Lightfoot’s mellifluous voice first got nationwide exposure in this country with 1970’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” a haunting song of a relationship stalling that was a Top Ten hit and a millon seller, and his song “Sundown” was one of those radio songs that was inevitable in the mellow Seventies—it topped the pop charts and the Easy Listening charts.
“The Wreck” is a different vibe, with that long, steel guitar line that sounds like an insinuating wind stealing in and some busy synthesizer percolating in the background, while the lyrics instate Lightfoot as a great songwriter, living up to his antecedents in the folk tradition. The verse that delivers the actual wreck is powerful in its compression and pacing: “The captain wired in he had water comin’ in / And the good ship and crew were in peril / And later that night when his lights went out of sight / Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” That final line in which the name of the ship comes on to meet its rhyme—“peril”—awes with the inevitable force of a wave that could destroy a ship. (On the bottom of Lake Superior, about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, the wreck of the ship lies in two neatly severed sections, seemingly snapped indeed “like a bone to be chewed.”)
Lightfoot also invokes the cold heart of our Maker at such moments: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours”—the last bit always gives me an image of the vast lake’s indifference to what has gone below its surface. The narrator includes speculations and the usual “if only” scenarios that could have averted the disaster, then takes us to an element of the folkloric imagination very meaningful as well in the historic story: “And all that remains are the faces and the names / Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.” Living memory. The verse again feels like it comes from long ago, that the descendants of these dead mariners are part of ancient memory, but in fact they are recipients of the song, contemporary with its release. They are left to mourn as the song mourns. But they are also “all that remains” of the forever absent menfolk—fathers, husbands.
Before taking us to that cathedral for the commemorative bell-ringing, Lightfoot gives us two verses about the lakes themselves. It’s a gesture that aligns the song with great tales of place—like tales of the Mississippi or of the Rockies. It makes the Great Lakes characters in the song, with different temperaments and purposes—it makes them seem for a moment wild things almost tamed by our human associations, then that baleful line about “the gales of November remembered” (again, the villain of the piece has a look in). Then we’re back to honoring the dead, with a wind-up that takes us—shades of the return of “The Highwayman” in Noyles’ poem—back to the beginning.
Here’s a song to sing when the gales of November come early, children. Perfect for a gloomy November day like this in New Haven, with its unrelenting rain.