Gordon Lightfoot’s Tale of a Ship’s Crew and Its Captain

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When listeners first heard Gordon Lightfoot‘s heart-wrenching tale of the 29 brave souls who lost their lives aboard a ship in his 1976 hit, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” many assumed that he had chosen a subject from perhaps a century earlier.

The singer-songwriter had scored a handful of hits in his native Canada and had first come to the attention of worldwide audiences with his 1970 smash, “If You Could Read My Mind.” After a series of mid-chart singles, Lightfoot scored what would be his biggest hit, 1974’s “Sundown,” which reached #1 in the U.S. and Canada. It was followed that same year by another big success, “Carefree Highway.”

When “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was released as a single in August 1976, Top 40 audiences listened spellbound to Lightfoot’s tale no matter how many times they heard it.

The freighter “with a crew and good captain well seasoned” was traveling from Wisconsin to Detroit – Lightfoot used artistic license to sub-in “Cleveland” as the destination – with a load of “twenty six thousand tons” of iron ore. In the song’s first verse, Lightfoot hints of danger “when the skies of November turn gloomy.”

Soon enough, the gales of November came slashin’, when afternoon came it was freezing rain, in the face of a hurricane west wind.

As Lightfoot continues, the ship’s cook tells the men that the worsening weather is “too rough to feed ya.” And then, just two lines later, comes the kicker…

“Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.” What?!? (That line never fails to elicit chills.)

Lightfoot’s lyrics continue: 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 out of sight, came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Lightfoot’s tale is, indeed, based on a true story. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior, or as the songwriter writes, “Gitche Gumee,” which the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had also called it in his epic poem of 1855, The Song of Hiawatha.

But the ship was no 19th century freighter. The sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had taken place on November 10, 1975. Lightfoot read about it in Newsweek later that month and wrote the song just weeks later. In 2010, he told a Savannah, Ga., publication that he has been to the Maritime Sailors Cathedral in Detroit several times to sing the song and greet the local sea captains. (He describes it in the song’s ending–the church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times.)

The Captain had never sent a distress signal. His last message was, “We are holding our own.”

Listen to the studio recording

Watch Lightfoot perform the song in 2000, from his Live in Reno DVD

The single debuted at #89 on August 28, 1976, ultimately reaching #2 that November, one year after that fateful day.

Related: What else was at the top in November 1976?

Lightfoot was born November 17, 1938. He died on May 1, 2023, at age 84.

Greg Brodsky

7 Comments so far

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  1. Dannykon
    #1 Dannykon 24 January, 2019, 12:19

    Hi Greg, Thanks for sharing.

    Reply this comment
  2. mack
    #2 mack 25 July, 2019, 21:12

    Does any know where the love of God goes
    when the waves turn minutes to hours?

    Reply this comment
    • emerose
      emerose 11 August, 2019, 18:45

      Had forgotten that great line, thanks! It is hard to realize just how big Gordon LIghtfoot was back then, and just how good his material–music and lyrics–were.

      Reply this comment
  3. John Rose
    #3 John Rose 18 November, 2020, 12:50

    The first time I heard the song I was 12 or 13 and it was about 11:00 at night. With those haunting lyrics, and equally haunting lead guitar, I was spellbound, to put it mildly. It’s an amazing piece of work.

    Reply this comment
    • Tim
      Tim 19 November, 2021, 15:54

      Wonderful story, sad and so much sorrow. Gordon is a great singer, quite brilliant and genuine!! Thank you Sir Lightfoot✌☯️

      Reply this comment
  4. Chris
    #4 Chris 5 August, 2022, 09:21

    great song and great career, how come he is not in the RRHOF.

    Reply this comment
    • Ira1213
      Ira1213 5 August, 2022, 16:15

      Great question! Have seen him live since the mid70’s Just saw him in June, in Elkart, Indiana. he’s older, doesn’t sing as well! he is well deserving, met him once, he was friendly and nice. It is quite the injustice, a Canadian treasure, we should honor him!

      Reply this comment

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