Gordon Lightfoot

Remembering Gordon Lightfoot, His Ode to the Edmund Fitzgerald Endeared Him to Michiganders for Generations

In a career spanning more than six decades, Canadian folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot penned many classic songs, including “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” and “Rainy Day People.”

But “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” his ode to the famous freighter endeared him to Michiganders for generations.

Lightfoot passed away Monday in Toronto at 84.

Gordon Lightfoot
Arnielee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” relayed the SS Edmund’s Fitzgerald’s final voyage on the rough waters of Lake Superior in November 1975.

Lightfoot learned about the ship in a Newsweek article from Nov. 24, 1975, “The Cruelest Month,” published two weeks after the incident.

The song’s opening pedal steel and guitar riffs are familiar to music fans as are the opening lines to the song: “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee.”

Lightfoot based the song’s melody on an Irish folk song and wrote lyrics about the tragedy, crafting a song with seven verses, some instrumental breaks, and no chorus. During recording at Eastern Sound in Toronto, Lightfoot turned out all the lights in the studio except one so he could see the lyrics and cleared out the studio.

The song was included on Lightfoot’s 1976 album Summertime Dream and rerecorded in 1988 for his hits compilation, “Gord’s Gold Vol. 2.

The song reached No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 on the Billboard Top 100, becoming Lightfoot’s second most successful single. It proved to be a popular radio hit and radio programmers didn’t cut it short so as not to miss a verse.

Over his long career, Lightfoot made frequent stops in Michigan to play in concert. According to the website, The Concert Datahouse, Lightfoot played all over the Mitten State, including the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Pine Knob in Clarkston, Krege Auditorium in Interlochen, Big Bear Arena in Sault Ste. Marie and Castle Farms in Charlevoix. 

While the song is about a true event, Lightfoot took some artistic liberties as he wrote the lyrics. The song mentions that the freighter was headed for Cleveland when it was actually destined for Zug Island near Detroit. Another inaccuracy is the mention of “the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral,” which is actually the Mariners Church of Detroit.

Through the years, Lightfoot also made small revisions to the song, most notably with the lyric, “At 7 p.m., a main hatchway caved in.” After seeing a National Geographic special on the freighter, the lyric was changed to “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said.”

Learn more about the Edmund Fitzgerald, including the ship and its crew, and interesting facts about the ship.

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