On November 10, 1975 a crew of 29 died when the 729-foot ore carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald foundered in 80 mile-an-hour winds and blinding snow squalls with wave heights up to 25 feet on Lake Superior. It was a loss of life that became the subject of one of Gordon Lightfoot's most celebrated songs.
The ballad originally appeared on Lightfoot's 1976 album Summertime Dream, and he later released it as a single that become a No. 1 hit in Canada, but in the US Rod Stewart's "Tonight's The Night" ironically kept the Lightfoot ballad in 2nd place. It was to become Lightfoot's second-most-successful single behind "Sundown."
Lightfoot recalled the story of the song during a Reddit AMA: "The Edmund Fitzgerald really seemed to go unnoticed at that time, anything I'd seen in the newspapers or magazines were very short, brief articles, and I felt I would like to expand upon the story of the sinking of the ship itself," he said. "And it was quite an undertaking to do that. I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old."
"I think it was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music," he continued. "That's where the melody comes from, from an old Irish folk song."
Lightfoot wrote the lyrics after coming up with the melody and chords. He recalled: "When the story came on television, that the Edmund had foundered in Lake Superior three hours earlier, it was right on the CBC here in Canada. I came into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and saw the news and I said 'That's my story to go with the melody and the chords.'"
In a 2015 interview with NPR's Scott Simon, Gordon Lightfoot explained that the article he read in Newsweek about the tragedy was, "Short shrift for such a monumental event." Lightfoot says the song came about when he discovered the newspaper writers kept misspelling the name of the ship, rendering it as "Edmond Fitzgerald" rather than "Edmund Fitzgerald." Though he didn't say whether or not the misspelling was deliberate, he was quoted as telling Scott, "That's it! If they're gonna spell the name wrong, I've got to get to the bottom of this!" (thanks, Annabelle - Eugene, OR)
This is referenced in the Seinfeld episode "Andrea Doria," when Elaine mistakenly believes Gordon Lightfoot was the name of the ship and Edmund Fitzgerald was the name of the singer. Jerry quips: "Yeah, and it was rammed by the Cat Stevens."
Over the years Lightfoot has made several small alterations to the song either at the behest of families of those who perished or to correct an error of fact, although he has never altered the copyrighted lyrics.
It is now coming up to the 40th anniversary of that fateful event that is estimated to have taken place at around 7:30 pm (you can read an account here). A number of tributes are set to remember those who perished on both sides of the border, and the Canadian Mint has struck a silver $20 coin designed by Canadian artist John Horton.
One of the odder planned commemorations is a cover song tribute by Toronto a cappella group Cadence. The Juno nominated Toronto quartet is currently seeking $5,000 on GoFundMe to produce an 8 minute video to accompany a recorded rendition of the Lightfoot song.
On their crowd funding site they write: "As Cadence is a full-time, self-managed musical group that shoulders the financial responsibility of all aspects of the business, we do not have an excess of disposable income. We have set aside a modest amount to move forward with this project but we are asking for your support to see this project through and help us create something beautifully timeless. Your support would be greatly appreciated."
— Sources: Lightfoot fan website, Canadian Mint, Wikipedia, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Songfacts