Saturday, November 26, 2011

New Lyrics For "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

The haunting tune is familiar to anyone who’s listened to popular music in the last four decades: Gordon Lightfoot’s "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Lightfoot’s ballad about the fate of the Great Lakes freighter is one of his most-played songs, but recent investigations have lead to the singer/songwriter changing the lyrics in light of new findings.

Background. At 13, 600 tons, Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest “iron boats” working the Great Lakes. After being launched in 1958, she carried ore throughout the Lakes and came to be know for her size, speed records, and “DJ Captain” Peter Pulcer, who played music through the ship’s PA system when she transited the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. Ernest McSorley was captain when Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975 bound for Detroit. By the next day the ship was caught in a storm with 35-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. Over the course of several hours, McSorley reported that the Edmund Fitgerald was taking on water and had a bad list. At shortly after 7pm, he told the captain of another vessel that “We are holding our own.” The ship was never heard from again.

Several theories attempt to account for Edmund Fitzgerald’s fate. Unusually high winds and waves, a “rogue wave,” and shallow water have all been blamed. The ship itself and the actions of the crew have also been suspected, including the failure of the crew to properly secure the large cargo hatch on the ship’s deck.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The following year, Lightfoot recorded the song for his album Summertime Dream. Although Lightfoot’s account sticks mainly to the facts known at the time, his lyrics speculate about events on the ship shortly before the sinking:
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
Although Lightfoot admitted that this verse was purely speculative –“It's the only verse in the whole song where I give myself complete poetic license,” he said in a 2010 interview -- a US Coast Guard report on the incident at the time blamed the failure of the hatch due to improper use of the clamps used to hold the hatch to the deck. Almost from the beginning, though, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the families and labor unions of the lost 29 crew members, challenged the Coast Guard’s findings. Lightfoot’s song was a painful reminder to the families, though, that the official cause of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking was human error.

The Dive Detectives. The wreck itself was found in 1976. In the following decades various attempts – including one by Jean-Michel Cousteau. were made to discover what had caused the wreck. The History Channel program Dive Detectives set out to investigate in 2010, and came down firmly on the side of the “rougue wave” theory. According to the program’s website, their investigation
calls the official U.S. Coast Guard theory into question, and reveals another potential cause of the disaster.  They determine that a maritime phenomena known as a “rogue wave”— a giant wall of water that can reach heights as tall as a ten-story building— may have triggered the sinking.  Once dismissed as a sailor’s myth, rogue waves not only exist, they may occur far more frequently than once believed.
The producers of Dive Detectives contacted Lightfoot to ask about using his song in their program. After learning of their findings, he started changing the lyrics to his song in his live performances. The section now goes
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'.
Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya.
At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said,
'Fellas it's been good to know ya.’
For the Dive Detectives trailer of the rogue wave theory of the sinking, click here.

For a Toronto Sun article on Lightfoot changing his lyrics, click here.

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