The PJ Tatler

Forty Years On, the Edmund Fitzgerald Lives on in Song and Memory

Forty years ago today, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest ship to ply the waters of the Great Lakes, sank beneath the waves off of Whitefish Bay, Michigan, carrying 29 souls to a watery grave.

As my brother Jim, an accomplished folk musician, points out, the event was barely mentioned in the American press and would have gone largely unnoticed save for Canadian folk artist Gordon Lightfoot, who memorialized the ship and the men who died in one of the most popular folk songs in the modern era.

The “Big Fitz” – for a long time the largest ship ever to ply the freight routes around the Great Lakes – was carrying taconite pellets with enough iron ore in them to build more than 4,000 cars. That point alone is something of a head-turner and an index of just how huge this ship was. Add to that the fury of the Great Lakes gale, as bad as all but the most massive of oceanic cyclones, and the mystery of the cause of the wreck and you have what ought to have been the makings of a great news story. Yet except for regional coverage in newspapers in Lakes-related cities and a brief note on some of the evening network newscasts, the “Edmund Fitzgerald” sank into anonymity as it slipped beneath the 35 or 40 foot waves on that awful night.

Or it would have, as we all know, but for the artistry of a single Canadian singer-songwriter who was at the crest of an unprecedented period of international popularity. Gordon Lightfoot had already scored four “Billboard Magazine” top ten single records including a #1, “Sundown” in 1974, and no Canadian singer prior to GL had ever had such a run. Lightfoot had been disturbed by both the relative indifference of the U.S. press to the disaster and by the inaccuracies in some of the reporting (most famously, “Newsweek” misspelling the vessel’s name), and though he hesitated to record this song for fear that he would be accused of commercializing the deaths of more than two dozen people for personal profit (accusations which did in fact surface aggressively and nearly immediately, scarcely allayed by his very public contribution of all the proceeds from the composition in perpetuity to the widows and children of the crew), he included the song on his “Summertime Dream” album on Reprise Records. The single record reached the #2 spot on Billboard, no mean feat for a folk-rock-ish number in a market about to be awash in BeeGee’s-styled disco tunes.

And thanks to that haunting, ethereal, and superbly-crafted track, today four decades later…everyone remembers the “Edmund Fitzgerald” and her crew.

There is a long, rich history of disasters being put to music. Found in both ancient and contemporary folk traditions, there have been songs about the Johnstown Flood, urban riots,, mining disasters,, and several heartfelt, emotional songs about hurricanes, including this one about the 1900 Galveston hurricane that was the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. The Chad Mitchell Trio’s version of “Mighty Day” is a haunting tribute to the dead:

I wrote about the impact that songs of disaster had on Americans on my old RWNH blog. At the time, Katrina was about to make landfall:

The focus of the entire nation is now on those cities and towns in the path of the monster. And as the disaster develops, we will be united as a community in our outpouring of support and sympathy for the victims. This is possible because our country is wired wall to wall with communciations technologies that our ancestors would have found almost magical. Not only will television and radio be covering this disaster, but bloggers also will be giving us frequent updates on the storm’s track and the local efforts to deal with the tragedy.

All of this got me thinking of how our ancestors dealt with events like this. The answer to that can be found in American folk music traditions and how songs about disasters became like tabloid news reports that informed the country of what it was like for the victims to live and die during events like hurricanes, ship wrecks, floods, and mining disasters.

Examples of such disaster songs can be found throughout the American songbook. Revell Carr who writes for the New York Journal of Folklore, found that songs of disasters have six basic elements:

1. The song describes actual historical events
2. The event features significant loss of life
3. Themes and motifs include unheeded warnings, human culpability, and divine retribution.
4. Stock formulas; most commonly the date of the tragedy, which usually appears at the beginning, are used both as mnemonic devices and as keys signifying the performance frame.
5. Voyeuristic and sensationalistic details give the song a tabloid quality:
6. The song conveys empathy for the victims and the survivors.

As Jim points out, the loss of life in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was not excessive. But each live lost had a story to tell, and Lightfoot, by “resurrecting” the ship, brought well-deserved attention to the 29 men who perished in the tragedy.

This History Channel documentary on the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald is an excellent source for information about how researchers have been trying to unravel the mystery of her sinking, as well as featuring some touching profiles of crew members.