Respectful Insolence

On November 10, 1975, the most famous maritime disaster in Great Lakes history occurred, when the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior while trying to make it to Whitefish Bay in a gale, with the loss of 29 lives. Having grown up in the Detroit area, I still remember it almost as though it were yesterday. Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the crew and the loss in his famous song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Here’s a tribute video incorporating the song:

And here are the lyrics:

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’.
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches 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;
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.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘Gitche Gumee’.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    November 10, 2006

    Good post … good video.

    I grew up in the Soo (Ontario), and have the same sort of memories as you do.

    Thanks …

  2. #2 J-Dog
    November 10, 2006

    Thanks for the post. I grew up on the shores of Lake Erie, almost signed up one summer to work on a tramp steamer and had a friend whose uncle went down with the Fitzgerald, so your post really resonates with me.

  3. #3 Ruth
    November 10, 2006

    I remember the wind that day. I lived about 80 miles southwest of Whitefish Bay. That song still brings tears to my eyes. I grew up on the Lakes, many family friends and my brother sailed on the ore boats. For all our technolgy, we are sometimes defeated by nature’s raw power.

  4. #4 Flea
    November 10, 2006

    My med school roommate made up a spoof song called “The Wreck of the Ella Fitzgerald”. He’d scat for a few seconds and then scream.

    best,

    Flea

  5. #5 Flea
    November 10, 2006

    My med school roommate made up a spoof song called “The Wreck of the Ella Fitzgerald”. He’d scat for a few seconds and then scream.

    best,

    Flea

  6. #6 Betsy Hutchins
    November 10, 2006

    I grew up in Florida–a long way away. The first time I heard this song it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up—-and years later it still does. Thank you SO MUCH for putting up this post and allowing us to hear the song again and see the video. I am so grateful to you.

  7. once while performing this song i went totally up on the lyrics and improvised

    “now i like this song ’cause it’s so f***king long
    and none of you know all the words. . .”

  8. #8 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski
    November 11, 2006

    I have lived inland for many years now, but grew up on the Atlantic. Ships that look huge in the harbor are each just “a bone to be chewed” out there. Most of the crew of the EF were about the age of my siblings and spouse now…

  9. #9 TheProbe
    November 11, 2006

    Thanks for a superb tribute to those who were just doing their jobs.

    Another memorable sinking was the ANdrea Doria in the 1950′s. I was a kid at the time, but remember the TV coverage and how people came off rescue vessels with blankets wrapped around them. Those were the lucky ones.

    Then, there was the Perfect Storm where just a handful died, all just doing their jobs.

    I recall that July night when Flight 800 exploded off of Long Island. We were out on my boat and raced to the area at top speed to see if we could help. As a VietVet, who had seen some real horrors, it was ghastly. Burning fuel and debris…just like hell.

    Conversely, Long Island, and the entire North and Mid Atlantic Coast are blessed with having the 106th Rescue Wing stationed on the east end. These *reservists* are considered to be the finest resuce team in the military. They were involved in the Perfect Storm and other long range rescues.

    The tragedy is that the government is looking to cut back in such services.

  10. #10 Jonathan Semetko
    November 11, 2006

    Thanks for that Orac.

    My family lives at the end of the Detriot River/start of Erie, so I grew up on that song.

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