30 Years Ago Today
November 10, 2005 6:27 AM   Subscribe

When the Waves Turn the Minutes to Hours It's been 30 years since Lake Superior November gales claimed the Great Lakes ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. The sinking immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot is also documented at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on a spit of land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a mere squinting distance on a clear day from where the Fitz actually went down. Here in Detroit, of course, the bells will ring at Mariner's Church -- where a lone priest reacted to the sinking by ringing the church's bells 29 times, once for each man lost. (previously discussed (kinda) here (among others)
posted by chandy72 (46 comments total)

 
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:31 AM on November 10, 2005


You know, I'm a huge Gordon Lightfoot fan, and I admire his commemoration of the story, but that is his most annoyingly repetitive tunes ever. </derail>
posted by spock at 6:35 AM on November 10, 2005


Webcast memorial service.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 6:49 AM on November 10, 2005


Spock - seriously. That song is one of the most annoying things I can recall hearing. It's up there with "We Didn't Start the Fire."
posted by selfnoise at 6:50 AM on November 10, 2005


"The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy."

Come on - I think there is a huge distinction between a song like "We didn't start the Fire", which basically lists a bunch points in history to a crappy beat and "The Wreck", which paints a pretty vivid picture of one tragic event.

Also, there are many of us that have somewhat of a connection to The Fitz that helps to foster a fascination with both the song and the sinking 30 years later. This, from chandy72's editorial "Lightfooting the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald" gives a great summary of how some of us feel about the event and the song. The link does not seem to be working for me right now, so here are some of the good parts:

For me, the fascination with the Edmund Fitzgerald story began early. As fate would have it, my uncle had worked on the Fitzgerald weeks before it went down. He transferred to the Detroit River mailboat the J.M. Prescott - the very boat that would have delivered glad tidings
and news of home to the men of the Fitzgerald had it not sunk 17 miles off the coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

So began a lifelong fascination with a song, an event and a mystery that would find me "shush-ing" more passengers in my various old-model Fords than my teenage years would suggest.


Full disclosure: chandy is my brother - literally and figuratively.
posted by Armen Tanzarian at 7:06 AM on November 10, 2005


"Nautical Disaster" by the Hip, while not about the Edmund, has always seemed to me about as good a shipwreck song as they come.
posted by anthill at 7:11 AM on November 10, 2005


As someone who toured the Great Lakes as a kid, I have a soft spot for the Lightfoot song.
posted by dial-tone at 7:15 AM on November 10, 2005


Without this great song, how else would we have ever known that they call the big lake, "Gitche Gumee".
Although this song is not nearly among his best, it is arguably his most recognizable. An odd thing happens when this song is played...nobody ever knows all of the words, but so many people chime in on lines like, "..fellas, it's been good to know ya!" I like it. A lot.
posted by Shfishp at 7:16 AM on November 10, 2005


'Gitche Gumee' LOL!
posted by Balisong at 7:19 AM on November 10, 2005


Without this great song, how else would we have ever known that they call the big lake, "Gitche Gumee".

Which translates to Big Water in Ojibway/Cree . True poetic minimalism.
posted by srboisvert at 7:24 AM on November 10, 2005


Gitche Gume does sound like Gordon is tickling Lake Superior.
posted by Armen Tanzarian at 7:25 AM on November 10, 2005


No mention of the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes Brewery?
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:25 AM on November 10, 2005


"I looove Edmund Fitzgerald's voice." -Elaine
posted by mowglisambo at 7:28 AM on November 10, 2005


Do they make jokes about too much Porter putting you under?
posted by anthill at 7:29 AM on November 10, 2005


but what rhymes with big water?
posted by jmackin at 7:38 AM on November 10, 2005


I think the lyrics to "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" are great. I think it is a haunting song and I think it clearly connects with people on an emotional level (so it can't be all bad). I just think that the sheer number of verses with the same repetitive tune are like "waves breaking over the railing". Looking again at the lyrics, I'm struck by how the song doesn't have a chorus. With most songs, you have a build up of tension and the payoff is the chorus, or there is a bridge 2/3 of the way through it, which varies the mood for a moment before diving back in. This song has neither, probably by design - but it makes it a song that I only want to hear occasionally.
posted by spock at 7:38 AM on November 10, 2005


This song has neither, probably by design

Right, it's a funeral dirge.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 7:51 AM on November 10, 2005


"Wreck" is a folk song in the classic sense - a musical narrative of an actual event. We loves it.

"We Didn't Start The Fire" is an insipid little nursery rhyme, that serves only to show just how badly Billy Joel's songwriting skills had deteriorated.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:07 AM on November 10, 2005


Why can I not find the lyrics to "The Rectum of Edmund Fitzgerald" on-line? Anyone?
posted by Aknaton at 8:08 AM on November 10, 2005


Can anybody tell me how to get that tune out of my head now?
posted by SteveInMaine at 8:12 AM on November 10, 2005


I rest my case.
: )
posted by spock at 8:25 AM on November 10, 2005


How to Get an Annoying Song out of Your Head (Surgeon General's Warning: Some of the songs mentioned in this article may now get stuck in your head)



Research in the US has found that songs get stuck in our heads because they create a "brain itch" that can only be scratched by repeating the tune over and over.

posted by spock at 8:28 AM on November 10, 2005


It might not be Gordon's best song, but you've got to admit that he did what he set out to do -- there's been tons of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, but we're actually talking about this particular one, thirty years later. If it weren't for this particular memorable song, nobody outside Michigan's Upper Peninsula* would remember any of this anymore.

* - Disclaimer, I lived in the U.P. when this song came out, and there are simply no words for how much it clicked with the natives.
posted by Pufferish at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2005


Being in Duluth, where the Fitz started out, I have a love hate relationship with the song. On one hand it makes me want to bang my head against the nearest stone wall repeatedly, just because it is SO overused, especially nowadays, but it is not a horrible song... kinda the same reaction I have against "Lake Art". One can only stand so many images of light houses and seagulls orientated towards tourists.

Incidentally, there was a kinda neat story in the local paper about shipwreck hunting today
posted by edgeways at 8:55 AM on November 10, 2005


As your average shipwreck song goes, for my money I prefer Legend of the USS Titanic by Jamie Brockett. They used to have it on rotation in the mid 70s on Beeker Street after 11pm on KAAY Little Rock.

Now I can't get THAT song out of my head.
posted by hal9k at 9:26 AM on November 10, 2005


If you find the song too melodramatic, there's always the Coast Guard report [5.3MB PDF] and the NTSB report.
posted by candyland at 9:49 AM on November 10, 2005


hal9k!! ... they used to play jamie brockett's titanic in kalamazoo in the 70s

longfellow's hiawatha calls lake superior gitchee gumee, which is how it got into general use

the song is part of an very old tradition of making songs about specific shipwrecks and mine disasters that's in celtic folk music ... my grandmother had written down the lyrics to many songs about northern michigan lumberjacks that were similar ... i wish i'd known what happened to them

the melody is repetitive, but squarely in the tradition ... many of the songs have no chorus

people in the lower peninsula identify with this song, too ...

One can only stand so many images of light houses and seagulls orientated towards tourists.

yeah, i know that feeling ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:53 AM on November 10, 2005


The song could really use a chorus or something, but it's sort of compelling. (Plus there's all the great (?) "Wreck of the Patrick Fitzgerald" takeoffs that came out last week.)
posted by transona5 at 9:53 AM on November 10, 2005


No mention of the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes Brewery?

That is my favorite porter.
posted by sciurus at 9:55 AM on November 10, 2005


the song is part of an very old tradition of making songs about specific shipwrecks and mine disasters that's in celtic folk music ... my grandmother had written down the lyrics to many songs about northern michigan lumberjacks that were similar ... i wish i'd known what happened to them

My sis-in-law, who lives in Albany, bought me a CD by the local band Hair of the Dog, who play a lot of Irish folk music. "The Edmund Fitzgerald" sounds a *lot* like their recording of "Back Home in Derry". Both are great examples of the Irish folk genre.
posted by Doohickie at 10:14 AM on November 10, 2005


edgeways writes "SO overused, especially nowadays"


Um, what the hell are you talking about, "especially nowadays"? Has eminem sampled it, or something?
posted by Deathalicious at 12:27 PM on November 10, 2005


BTW great FPP. Playing Gordon on iTunes right now...man, it's been ages since I've heard his stuff.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:30 PM on November 10, 2005


The good news is that the Fitz and subsequent popularity ended up shunting a bunch of money into the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point (linked in FPP). It's rather a nice museum, and always a fun place to take a dip in the lake to scare the fudgies. [I do it every year I go to visit my relatives up north. Every year some shivering tourist exclaims something akin to "Holy crap, that dude is swimming in the icewater! WTF!"]

When I was younger the lighthouse was there but there wasn't much of a museum. It's quite a bit nicer now, but still sort of a shock to my memory to see how much it has grown and changed over the years.

The wreck itself, well, my relatives think that without Lightfoot nobody would really think much of the ship. My great uncle Fran (former iron mine worker from Marquette) said it was a big ship but lots of ships sank. My great uncle Bill worked on the ore boats in the dunnage rooms, handling cables. He also said that Gord made the wreck memorable. Not that anyone wants to make light of the loss of a ship, but I agree - nobody outside of the local area would have remembered it this long without the publicity.

As for the song, heck... instantly recognizable, but for my money I'd prefer to hear Gord sing "Sundown" or "Canadian Railway Trilogy". The word "muskeg" just doesn't get used nearly as often as it should...
posted by caution live frogs at 12:50 PM on November 10, 2005


Anything that he put out when he was recording for United Artists. . .I love.

His WB recordings are over-produced and very spotty. Not enough Red Shea.
posted by Danf at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2005


Compare Brockett's version of The Titanic to the one done in 1912 by Leadbelly. Brockett lifted the chorus, Eagle Rock, and Jack Johnson from the original, then went on a crazed riff. Leadbelly said he had to leave the Jack Johnson references out whenever he played it for a white audience.

What always struck me about Edmund Fitzgerald was the mundane lyrics and forced rhymes -- they sound exactly like traditional songs that have been heard or remembered wrong and repeated over and over. While it's not Lightfoot's best, I always thought it had a genius of its own because of that.
posted by forrest at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2005


Interesting the Neil Diamond and GL get into Metafilter posts, just a few days apart. I associate the two singers due to the timing of their hits...
posted by ParisParamus at 1:30 PM on November 10, 2005


for my money I'd prefer to hear Gord sing "Sundown"

I was unaccountably obsessed with this song when I was 5. Still love it (and sing it loudly and lustily) whenever i hear it on the radio, which is a little too infrequently for my tastes.
posted by scody at 2:02 PM on November 10, 2005


.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:22 PM on November 10, 2005


Sundown was his only Number 1 hit and it's a fine song, but for my money "Circle is Small" and "Carefree Highway" are the best of his singles. I love the Railway Trilogy and other oldies like "Old Dan's Records" and "Rainy Day People" also have a soft spot in my heart. The old "Gord's Gold" double album is a true classic.
posted by spock at 2:55 PM on November 10, 2005



Without this great song, how else would we have ever known that they call the big lake, "Gitche Gumee".


Well, another poster beat me to answering this anyway. But my Irony Detector's on the fritz, and I'm still not sure if you didn't know:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Song_of_Hiawatha

and

http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/hiawatha.html

Speaking of verse which is both annoying and compelling at the same time -- now try to get those Hiawatha phrases out of your mind.

[Music, poetry, Michigan Native American history, the mighty Great Lakes, why your brain does silly things like get stuck on a song -- this thread's all over topics that interest me.]


posted by NorthernLite at 3:04 PM on November 10, 2005


There was a rather wonderful band from Oxford, England, called The Edmund Fitzgerald. They split up earlier this year - they were only teenagers - but the mp3 on their site should help you forget Gordon Lightfoot...
posted by jonathanbell at 3:28 PM on November 10, 2005


As someone who moved into the Great Lakes region a mere two years ago, I have come to respect and fear the ferocity of the lakes and of the storms that come with them. The wind is so persistent and moans around the edges of the house all night long and you go to sleep hearing the roaring of the lake and the thunking of the ice and rain against the walls of the house.

In my native Tennessee I was a boating enthusiast, but I do not put out a boat here, even in the calm of summer. The lake claims its victims year round and demands respect. Respect I give it!
posted by UseyurBrain at 4:52 PM on November 10, 2005


A haunting song. I echo, and Lightfoot a haunted artist.
posted by troutfishing at 9:38 PM on November 10, 2005


It might not be Gordon's best song, but you've got to admit that he did what he set out to do -- there's been tons of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, but we're actually talking about this particular one, thirty years later. If it weren't for this particular memorable song, nobody outside Michigan's Upper Peninsula* would remember any of this anymore.

Untrue. Since you lived in the UP then, you may not realize how much of a national story the wreck was. First of all, it was quite a mystery -- no emergency radio call, no lifeboats or preservers. Second, the "Big Fitz" was one of the larger boats on the Lakes at the time. Third, there hadn't been any major sinkings for a few years at that point, and no major ship losses since -- largely as a result of better weather forecasting and emergency communications instituted as a direct result of this sinking.

Yes, the lakes are unforgiving, and the number of sailors lost over the years is only dimly estimated. But the Edmund Fitzgerald punctuated that history with an exclamation point. People literally thought we had newer, safer ships that would not be lost like this, so it was shocking in that regard.

My opinion of the song is mixed. I like it, mostly, but I agree it has some annoying qualities -- that repetitive keening (is that really just guitar?) gets on my nerves after a while and especially now feels so dated. I'd like to hear a cover of the song with a different feel -- perhaps somebody like Metric or Iron & Wine.

Doohickie: Wikipedia says
The tune was borrowed in 1984 by Christy Moore for his song, "I Wish I Were Back Home in Derry," which is itself an adaptation of Bobby Sands' poem, "The Voyage."
posted by dhartung at 10:18 PM on November 10, 2005


Expedition Notes on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Recovering the Bell [1995] from the Fitzgerald.

A bevy of links regarding the ship.

As a lifelong Michigan resident, who was four years old when the Fitz was lost, I don't think it's possible to overstate its presence in the regional subconscious.
posted by trigonometry at 1:08 AM on November 11, 2005


As your average shipwreck song goes, for my money I prefer Legend of the USS Titanic by Jamie Brockett.

I say Shine and the Titanic has 'em both beat. Gord wishes he was as cool as Dolemite.
posted by Opposite George at 1:56 AM on November 11, 2005


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