Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Witch of November

What the heck--may as well add my two cents worth--

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy. . .

The Great Lakes straddle the border between the United States and Canada. They are, according to some, not lakes at all, but vast freshwater inland seas, across which deadly storms lash water and land, taking lives from both. The most legendary storms and losses invariably fall in the month of November, when weather can be so unruly that sailors on the Lakes call it "the witch."

Of all the ships lost to the witch of November, the most famous is the ore freighter EDMUND FITZGERALD. The Big Fitz, as her crew affectionately called her, went down in a dreadful storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, with a loss of twenty-nine lives. Her name lives on thanks to Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who, after reading an article about the disaster in NEWSWEEK, wrote "The Wreck of the EDMUND FITZGERALD." Released on the 1976 album SUMMERTIME DREAM, the song became a hit on both sides of the border.

Lightfoot had written about shipwrecks before. In 1969, he had written "The Ballad of the YARMOUTH CASTLE", inspired by a 1965 fire aboard a Panamanian cruise ship in which ninety people died. "The Ballad of the YARMOUTH CASTLE" is a fairly standard folk ballad, brooding more over the physical destruction of the ship than over the lives lost.

"The Wreck of the EDMUND FITZGERALD" is of a different order entirely. Opening with a twanging electric guitar solo, it has what feels like the rhythm of a boat rising and falling under the listener’s feet. The lyrics are among Lightfoot’s best, full of poetry, imaginatively portraying the effects of the storm on both ship and crew.

The famed lines

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ "Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya"
At seven PM the main hatchway gave in
He said "Fellas, it’s been good to know ya".

conjure a picture of how conditions deteriorated minute by minute. (It would come out during a Coast Guard investigation that this cook was one engaged for this single trip, the regular one being ashore with illness, giving the imagined words added poignance)

and another couplet echoes the despair of the searchers looking for her wreckage:

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn minutes to hours?

The reasons the boat sank remain controversial, as Lightfoot acknowledges:

She might have split up or she might have capsized
She may have broke deep and took water. . .

The most usual reasoning is that she sustained damage to the hull when the storm-driven waves scraped her over a shoal, and shortly thereafter was struck by a series of giant rogue waves coming at her from three directions, the dreaded "Three Sisters" phenomenon; weakened by earlier damage, she had no chance.
There is also a dazzling description of the quirks of the lakes themselves, possibly the most memorable words ever written about them; a mnemonic device I remember more readily than the acronym HOMES:

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansions,
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. . .

Lightfoot would eventually donate all royalties from the song to the surviving families of the twenty-nine men lost aboard EDMUND FITZGERALD.

There have been shipwrecks with greater loss of life on the Lakes in November, of course, the most devastating being in the Great Storm of 1913, when nineteen ships and more than two hundred fifty men were lost. Perhaps the strangest loss of all was BANNOCKBURN, which sank within five minutes, in heavy weather, on November 21, 1902, with all hands, and has been said since to return in phantom form, the Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes.

But none of these disasters are as well known as EDMUND FITZGERALD, which inspired such memorable words and music, becoming Lightfoot’s third number one hit and arguably the most famous of all his songs.

Sometimes, when listening to weather reports of the Great Lakes region, I remember these lyrics, and shiver.


  1. Way back in the 60s when I bought my first Lightfoot album I turned it over and he had written notes in French. The line that stood out: Je suis un poète (I Am A Poet). Even with the great concert and album success I don't think his vision of himself has changed. More than two decades later during a live event some loud mouthed heckler screamed out at him, "LOUDER". The audience was outraged as we had been enjoying the intimacy in good accoustics of Lightfoot "unplugged" with the lone guitar and melodic voice. His response, "Go find a rock concert". My favorite of his story songs: Canadian Railway Trilogy.

  2. Jamie is right about Lightfoot being a poet, but so are you. This is the most lyrical account I've ever read about this song, Fair. And seeing Lightfoot sing it in person was one of the best musical treats of my life. Thanks for re-posting. YOUR words make ME shiver, which is all a good story-teller can wish for. <3

  3. I agree with you, Jamie, about Lightfoot being a poet--albeit one who can also write musical settings for his poems--I also love "Canadian Railroad Trilogy", for the poetry as well as the changes in rhythm over the course of the song. My favorite of all his songs, though--especially as the holidays approach--is "Circle of Steel". That melancholy little flute solo is striking enough, but couple it with the words, and I think it's right up there with any Christmas song--although it's far more social commentary than most. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Thank you, Moon. "The Wreck of the EDMUND FITZGERALD" was the second Lightfoot song I remember actually hearing him sing--the first of course being the wonderful acoustic bluesy-jazzy "Sundown". I think I was about fifteen when "EDMUND FITZGERALD" came out and I was enthralled with the poetry--although I didn't know until years later, believe it or not, that it was based on a true story.

    I had heard others of his songs because Dad came home one PM with, of all things, a George Hamilton IV album that consisted of all Lightfoot songs--the first version I ever heard of "Early Mornin' Rain" was by Bobby Bare, and the first "Ribbon of Darkness" I heard was by Marty Robbins of all people--Country went through a folkie phase in the late sixties and early seventies and I think perhaps a lot of country fans were introduced to Lightfoot the same way. Only later did I learn that his own recordings were the only ones that do his lyrics justice.

    (FWIW, he has the same Bday as my dad--November 17th--Dad was three years older though)