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The Story Behind Gordon Lightfoot’s Famous Edmund Fitzgerald Song

In the bed of the Great Lakes are thousands of ships and crew members. However, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the most famous and well-remembered sunken ships. The freighter sank to the floor of Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, taking all 29 crew with it.

One reason this tragedy is so remembered is because the definitive cause of the sinking wasn’t officially determined — aside from the fact that the ship sailed into a storm. Another is that it’s the most recent Great Lakes disaster.

On top of that, the incident is remembered because Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the incident with what’s known as the Edmund Fitzgerald song — “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” We’ve taken a deep dive into how the song came to be and its overall reception.

Lightfoot’s Story of Writing & Recording the Song

Inspiration for “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” came to Lightfoot after he read the Newsweek article “The Cruelest Month.” It was published on Nov. 24, 1975, exactly two weeks after the ill-fated incident. At the time, he was working on a melody that was based on an old Irish folk song.

Lightfoot began to write lyrics about the tragedy, putting them with the melody. He had spent time on the Great Lakes and knew a little bit about how the unpredictable weather could make sailing risky near the end of shipping season. That’s how the Edmund Fitzgerald song was born.

Soon after writing the song, Lightfoot recorded it at Eastern Sound in downtown Toronto in December 1975. The studio was famous for recording artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix, and Rush. During the vocal recording, he cleared the studio and turned out all the lights except one to see the lyrics. There’s no chorus, only seven verses with a couple instrumental bars in between.

The song was the first commercial digital multitrack recording on the 3M 32-track digital recorder — a prototype technology at the time. The pedal steel and guitar riffs were created by Terry Clements and Pee Wee Charles during a second take that evening. When completed, it was released on the 1976 “Summertime Dream” album.

In 1988, Lightfoot recorded the song again for the “Gord’s Gold Vol. 2” album. At a May 2013 performance at DeVos Performance Hall, he spoke to the crowd, describing the song as a folk song and a true story that Michiganders know well. He believes that the Edmund Fitzgerald song morphed into his greatest “story song” and one of his most significant contributions to music.

Sing Along With the Song & Full Lyrics of Edmund Fitzgerald Song

“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” music and lyrics ©1976 by Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down 
of the big lake they called "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 twenty-six thousand 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 good 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 ship's bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too
'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck
Sayin' "Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
(**2010 lyric change: At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said,)
"Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does any one 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 put fifteen more miles behind 'er.
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 twenty-nine 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 said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early!"

About the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Lyrics

The Edmund Fitzgerald song lyrics tell a real story about the heartbreaking sinking of the freighter. However, Lightfoot took a few creative liberties in the name of rhymes.

In a Canadian commercial radio interview, he talked about how he struggled to write the lyrics until friend and longtime producer Lenny Waronker advised him to use his artistic strengths to tell a story. His passion for sailing the Great Lakes comes through in the verses.

One of the inaccuracies is the lyric that the Fitzgerald was heading to Cleveland, Ohio. Actually, it was on its way to Zug Island near Detroit, Michigan, to unload the taconite pellet cargo before going to Cleveland for the winter. Also, Captain Ernest McSorley didn’t send a transmission saying “water comin’ in.” Instead, the last transmission received was that he and the crew were holding their own.

Another inaccuracy is the reference to “the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral” in the lyrics, which is actually the Mariners’ Church of Detroit. Additionally, with the lyric “When suppertime came the old cook came on deck; Sayin’ ‘Fellas, it’s too rough t’feed ya,'” there’s no way to know what Steward/Cook Robert Rafferty or Second Cook Allen Kalmon did or didn’t say that evening.

Later, Lightfoot revised his lyrics for live performances. A church parishioner took offense to the lyric “musty old hall” in reference to the Mariners’ Church of Detroit. In response, Lightfoot changed the lyric to “rustic old hall” in a live recording.

Another changed lyric is the original line “At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said.” An investigation for “Dive Detectives” on the National Geographic Channel suggested that the ship was broken in half by three rogue waves.

Since the March 2010 airing, Lightfoot has sung “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said” instead. Before a May 2013 appearance at Saginaw’s The Dow, he told MLive that changing the line made a mother and daughter of the deckhands happy because it removes the blame.

Overall Reception of the Edmund Fitzgerald Song

“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was significantly popular on the radio when it was released in 1976. Each verse is so important to the overall song story that radio programmers didn’t cut it short to make time for more advertisements. All seven verses and about 6.5 minutes of the song were played.

The single version of the Edmund Fitzgerald song hit No. 1 on all of the Canadian weekly charts. In the United States, it hit No. 1 on the Cash Box Top 100 and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, behind “Tonight’s the Night” by Rod Stewart.

This status made it Lightfoot’s second-most-successful single. In the year-end charts, the song was ranked No. 12 on the Canada RPM Top Singles and No. 22 on the US Cash Box.

Furthermore, the story-song was nominated for two Grammy Awards. In June 2012, Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame among fewer than 400 inductees — some of which include Bob Dylan, Elton John, Loretta Lynn, and Paul Simon.

Frequently Asked Questions About “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Song

What song was written about the Edmund Fitzgerald?

“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is the name of the song written about the freighter that sank to the bottom of Lake Superior in November 1975.

Who sang the song Edmund Fitzgerald?

Gordon Lightfoot is the singer and songwriter of the Edmund Fitzgerald song.

What year did the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” song come out?

The initial release of the song was in 1976 on the “Summertime Dream” album. Lightfoot recorded the song again in 1988 for the “Gord’s Gold, Vol. 2” compilation album.

Is the Edmund Fitzgerald a true story?

Yes, the story of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is true, and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a tribute to the tragic incident. A few details in the song, however, are embellished.

What does Gitche Gumee mean?

The term “Gitche Gumee” in the first and last verses of “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is what the Ojibwe Tribe calls Lake Superior. Loosely translated, it means “Huge Water” or “Big Sea.”

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3 Comments

  1. Gordon had the hit…mine was first but a miss.
    Great job Gordie..both of us are Scorpios…

    1. I’m truly am grateful for the sharing of this report of the Edmund Fitzgerald❣️
      I’ve been a long time Gordon Lightfoot fan, and I so remember the first recording of the song ~ it didn’t have the same affect on me in 1976, as it did in the late 1980’s, when I made my first adventure to the lovely Great Lake State, Michigan ~ I am a native California girl, but did have a fascination with the Great Lakes and their magnificent Freighters‼️
      So now, many years later, this Native California Girl, and her dear hubby, have retired to this very special Michigan State, since 2017 ~ and yes! I live near the Blue Water Bridge, in Port Huron, and my love affair with the Great Lakes and its Freighters, continues today, and I believe it will continue forever ~ my day is not complete until I take a drive down to the bridge to witness first hand, the magic and the excitement of the GREAT LAKE FREIGHTERS❣️
      Thank you for your sharing of this beautiful, sad and emotional event, song, tribute and memory ~ I am very grateful ‼️❣️‼️

  2. I was riding with my father on his way to see one if his friends when this song came on the radio, & now 45 years later is still one of my favorites ! RIP Dad & the crew of that Ill fated ship !

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