A Song for the Ages
Later in November, Newsweek magazine ran a report on the Fitzgerald tragedy entitled “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month.” The article begins: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’”
And so the seed of Lightfoot’s song was planted. The record was released in 1976 and was an immediate, if unlikely, hit. Unlike most pop songs – Rod Stewart’s syrupy ode to seduction “Tonight’s the Night” was number one at the time – Lightfoot’s song had complex lyrics and no chorus. It was also nearly seven minutes long. Nevertheless, this was the post-folk era of the singer-songwriter, of Don McLean (“American Pie”) and Harry Chapin and Jim Croce. Lightfoot rode that wave and created an epic which is as catchy as it is atmospheric.
The lyrics are both simple (“The ship was the pride of the American side / When they left fully loaded for Cleveland”) and existential (“Does anyone know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours”). They also capture the unique experience of the sea culture of Michigan, Canada and the broader Great Lakes region.
Perhaps most interestingly, just this year, Lightfoot decided to change parts of the song’s lyrics. At one point, Lightfoot sings:
When suppertime came the old cook came on deck saying
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed you.
At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said
Fellas, it’s been good to know ya!
The third line of that section was based on the assumption that crew members failed to secure the hatchway. To some, this placed a mild amount of blame for the ship’s demise on the crew. Subsequent research, however, suggests the crew had done everything it could. So, when Lightfoot, now 71, performs the song in concert, he sings: “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said / Fellas…”
Incidentally, “the old cook” refers to one of the several Irish Americans who went down with the ship: Robert Rafferty.
The Irish Version
Lightfoot’s “The Wreck” made the men on the ship immortal. Every November 10, at the Mariner’s Church, the bell is rung 29 times. The ship was eventually discovered 500 feet underwater. On the 20th anniversary of the sinking, in 1995, the ship’s own bell was brought to the surface and put on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
But if there were any doubts that Lightfoot’s song was a transcendent masterpiece, they were erased earlier, in 1984, less than a decade after the tragedy.
That’s when Irish balladeer Christy Moore set the song’s hypnotic melody to lyrics entitled “Back Home in Derry.” The lyrics were written by Bobby Sands, who had taken part in the infamous 1981 Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland. During that time, Sands was famously elected to parliament, before perishing, along with nine other strikers, in Long Kesh prison.
Just three years after Sands’ death, Moore set Sands’ words to Lightfoot’s music. Though based on events half a world away, there are striking lyrical similarities between “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Back Home in Derry.”
The Sands ballad, like Lightfoot’s, is about a perilous sea journey. “Back Home in Derry,” however, is set in 1803, as Irish prisoners are “Australia bound / if we didn’t all drown / And the marks of our fetters we carried.”
In the rusty iron chains we sighed for our wains
As our good wives we left in sorrow.
As the mainsails unfurled our curses we hurled
On the English and thoughts of tomorrow.
Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.
Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.
In recent years, the Edmund Fitzgerald memorial has become a service not only for the 29 lost on November 10, 1975 but for all those who ever perished at sea. This seems fitting, just as Christy Moore adapting Lightfoot’s music brought out the song’s universality.
This shows us that there are no international boundaries when it comes to great art. In the end, the precise reason why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank was never established. The ship “might have split up,” the song tells us.
It may have broke deep and took water.
All that remains are the faces and the names
Of the wives and the son and the daughters.