Tragedies endure, though mostly in history books.
The fortunate few get a song.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down/Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
So begins “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot’s tribute to the ship that sank in a Lake Superior gale 40 years ago Nov. 10.
We may listen with a certain resonance, since it happened on “our” lake. But the song does more than entertain. Known worldwide, the ballad keeps the tragedy alive, far longer than anyone likely would have imagined in 1975.
Ann Reed, a popular folk singer and songwriter based in Minneapolis, was in her 20s when the wreck made news, “but I probably know it best through the song.”
Another local songwriter, 26-year-old Paul Spring, doubted that he’d ever have heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald, that “the event would have been lost to time had a song not been written about it.”
Spring experienced the song’s generational and cultural power while as a kayak guide among Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands glimpsing sunken boats in the depths of a bay. “Someone would always bring up the Edmund Fitzgerald,” he said. “I mean, it’s about a very specific occurrence, but I think it stands for shipwrecks everywhere.”
Ships sink every year around the world — about 10 annually, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
The most recent was the El Faro, a cargo ship that disappeared in October near the Bahamas with 33 crew members, caught in the maelstrom that was Hurricane Joaquin. Will a poignant song honor its loss, its crew?
Hard to say, of course. But thanks to technology, a robot now is searching for the data recorder and human remains. Any mysteries may soon be solved, the need to somberly commit ships and souls to the deep less inevitable.
The El Faro shipwreck, while no less tragic, somehow seems less sentimental.
Then again, maybe it just needs a song.
‘Wrap me in a blanket’
Lightfoot said that he wrote the ballad after reading about the sinking in Newsweek.
Indeed, reporter James R. Gaines wrote an evocative account that began: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’ ”
With its haunting guitar line and the lilting, wave train waltz of a sea shanty, the song epitomizes how powerful the junction between history and music can be.
Alex Lubet, a professor of music and adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, also noted the marvelous circularity in this song making the shipwreck so widely known.
“Sea shanties are popular all over the world,” he said. “Sailors were major communicators of information, a big way that news was disseminated,” from port to port. Putting an event to song was creative, but also informative.
Lightfoot, a Canadian, also was an avid Great Lakes sailor and so knew whereof he wrote.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/When the gales of November came early.
“He made Lake Superior a character in the song,” said Reed. “That line about being chewed — it really brings up the whole idea that you’re not to mess with this lake.”
“It’s difficult to write a really good song,” she added. “There’s the marriage of the melody and the rhythm, and then you have the texture of the words you’re using, and to put those all together in a way that works is a real challenge. For this song, Lightfoot just got everything right.”
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound/When the wave broke over the railing.
“You hear those lines and there’s just this feeling of, ‘Wrap me in a blanket.’ ”
Reed said the song may have a global audience, but always will have a special meaning here. She remembered singing it in a Duluth bar “and I think everyone took it to heart, that it was about their lake. It’s very personal to Minnesota.”
Putting history to music
There’s a long tradition of honoring real-life events through song, especially in folk music. Lubet noted Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, both of whom influenced Bob Dylan and his songs about social justice. There often was a political undercurrent in many of these songs, he said, opposed to a straightforward recital of an event.
“Dylan wrote a ton of topical songs about events, some of which would not be remembered at all if he hadn’t written about them,” he said, such as “Hurricane,” the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongfully convicted of murder.
Yes, here’s the story of the Hurricane/The man the authorities came to blame/For somethin’ that he never done.
Other story songs simply describe a moment in time.
Joni Mitchell put an iconic event to music in “Woodstock,” about the massive rock festival in 1969.
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm/I’m going to join in a rock ’n’ roll band.
“The Star Spangled Banner” described a War of 1812 battle whose success was gauged by the sight of the U.S. pennant.
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air/Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Spring, the young songwriter, tackled the genre after the 2012 shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults died.
Then teaching at Lourdes High School in Rochester, Minn., he asked students to write their thoughts. Their varied responses inspired him to compose “Cowboy in a Newtown,” the title drawn from one student’s seeing a “Wild West” mentality in using guns to solve problems.
“I wrote it just to try to make sense of something that made no sense at all,” Spring said. He’s sung it at a few gigs, “but it’s definitely not a hit song. You won’t hear it on the radio.”
He’s not sure how his or similar songs add to the legacy of a historical event, “but perhaps they are a sort of intangible monument.”
Among the more recent such songs that got much airplay was Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll,” about passengers who fought back on hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. Otherwise, it’s hard to name another song that’s embedded itself in our culture as deeply as Lightfoot’s haunting shanty.
Does anyone 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 her.
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.
Now, try to hum any other song for the rest of the day.