Forty years ago this past Tuesday, the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald sank without warning in a monster storm on Lake Superior. Moments before they dropped off radar, the captain reported “We’re holding our own,” the freighter sank with the loss of 29 souls, the entire crew.
The sinking might have gone largely unnoticed but for the efforts of Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who read an article in Newsweek about the sinking which began,
According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee “never gives up her dead.” Modern-day mariners of Lake Superior know the legend has some basis in fact…
He used this passage in the beginning of the song and narrated the story using the best information he had at the time. One verse read,
When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it’s too rough to feed ya
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it’s been good to know ya.
Initially, authorities thought that the ship sank because the crew failed to properly secure the huge hatches on the main deck. Families objected, saying the captain and crew were far too conscientious to have left such an important task undone. Later analysis showed that the carrier probably encountered “rogue waves,” two exceptionally large formations in a row that appeared without warning. One wave lifted the Fitz from the bow while another hoisted the stern, leaving the hull between bearing the entire weight of the cargo. The ship broke in two and plummeted to the bottom, taking crew and cargo with it.
Lightfoot changed the lyrics to his song to reflect this new reality.
“At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said, ‘Fellas it’s been good to know ya.’”
The song later went on to receive considerable airplay at the time, unusual for a ballad that ran over eight minutes. I think that Lightfoot portrays the danger of plying the waters and the courage of the mariners. His creation of a work that recognizes both and honors the sacrifice of so many brave men stands as a testament to human perseverance and creativity. In spite of risk, we as humans continue to dare the elements and as we do, we have the poets and writers among us to record those stories. I can’t think of a more potent combination.