The Fitzgerald went down my first year in Ontonagon – November 10, 1975 – I was in Marquette when the storm blew up and we went to the Presque Isle Harbor to watch the waves crash over the breakwall. Driving back to Ontonagon the weather didn’t seem as bad away from the lake, but it was chilling to remember the sight of the fearsome waves at Presque Isle when the reports of the Fitz came in. The severity of November storms are always compared to the Fitzgerald storm now.
On a field trip in the early 1990s, we were parked in a tour bus along side the ore carrier turned tourist attraction William Irving in Duluth. We started talking about the Fitz and the driver put the song on the bus sound system. Even on that warm May afternoon, it sent a chill down my spine to look at the 700 foot Irving and think how quickly a ship that size could be gone.
Hearing Gordon Lightfoot do the song live at Lakeview Arena in Marquette was another spine chilling moment.
Thank goodness Lightfoot found the account of the sinking he read in Newsweek “was too short, too brief.” He also found the opening lyric in the same article (The legend lives on from the Chippawa on down . . . The lake it is said, never gives up her dead, when the skies of November turn gloomy). On the advice of his producer Lenny Waronker, he stopped agonizing over the accuracy of the lyrics and took some license to ‘just tell the story’. According to information entered about the song on Wiki, Lightfoot has inserted two ‘corrected lyrics’ in his live performances:
- In a later live recording, Lightfoot recounts that a parishioner of the church (Mariner’s Church in Detroit) informed him that the church is not “musty.” From that time, instead of singing “In a musty old hall…”, he now sings “In a rustic old hall…”
- In March 2010, Lightfoot changed a line during live performances to reflect new findings that there was no crew error involved in the sinking. The line originally read, “At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said…”; it is now sung as “At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said…”. Lightfoot learned of the new research when contacted for permission to use his song for a History Channel documentary that aired on March 31, 2010. Lightfoot has stated that he has no intention of changing the copyrighted lyrics; he will instead, from now on, simply sing the new ones in live performances.
The song was released in 1976 on his Summertime Dream album and garnered two Grammy nominations. I dare say the song will be played as long as ships sail the Great Lakes. Thank you for penning this song, Gordon Lightfoot. Some comment on how frail he looks and how his voice is also fading, but having survived a serious medical event some years ago (and later hearing his own obituary being read on a talk radio program while he was ironically driving through a cemetery), he has the right to carry on as long as he cares to. I was lucky enough to see him live twice in his acoustic trio days and again when he first started touring with a larger band in the wake of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitsgerald. Those are golden memories for me and as long as he has the breath and energy to want to perform, all I can say is ‘good for you Gordon!’