The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a 1976 hit song written, composed and performed by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to commemorate the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Lightfoot drew his inspiration from Newsweek‘s article on the event, “The Cruelest Month”, which it published in its November 24, 1975, issue.[2][better source needed] Lightfoot considered this song to be his finest work.[3]

Appearing originally on Lightfoot’s 1976 album Summertime Dream, the single version hit number 1 in his native Canada (in the RPM national singles survey) on November 20, 1976, barely a year after the disaster.[4] In the United States, it reached number 1 in Cashbox and number 2 for two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 (behind Rod Stewart‘s “Tonight’s the Night“), making it Lightfoot’s second-most-successful single, behind only “Sundown“. Overseas it was at best a minor hit, peaking at number 40 in the UK Singles Chart.[5]

Lightfoot re-recorded the song in 1988 for the compilation album Gord’s Gold, Vol. 2.


The song recounts the final voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald, as it experienced troubles then sank in rough seas on Lake Superior, late in the shipping season. Written before the wreckage of the ship was found, it deviates from the known sequence of events, and contains some artistic omissions and paraphrases. In a later interview, Lightfoot recounted how he had agonised over possible inaccuracies while trying to pen the lyrics, until producer Lenny Waronker advised him to play to his artistic strengths and “just tell a story”.[citation needed]Lightfoot’s passion for recreational sailing on the Great Lakes[6] informs his ballad’s verses throughout.

Deviations from the facts of the incident include:

  • According to the song, Edmund Fitzgerald was bound “fully loaded for Cleveland“. In fact, the ship was heading for Zug Island near Detroit, where it was set to discharge its cargo of taconiteiron ore pellets before heading on to its home port of Cleveland for the winter.[7]
  • The Edmund Fitzgerald was not “coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.” Lake freighters that carry bulk iron ore are loaded at ore docks, not mills.[8]
  • Capt. Ernest McSorley had stated in his last radio transmission before the ship sank that he and the crew were “holding our own”, not that they had “water coming in,” although he did communicate several hours earlier that the ship was taking on water.[9]
  • The song mentions possible causes of sinking, and while there is still debate about the cause, exploration of the wreckage found the bow and stern relatively close to each other on the lakebed floor, ruling out that it “might have split up.”[10]However this exploration took place a significant amount of time after the writing of the song.
  • Lightfoot refers to the Mariners’ Church of Detroitas “The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral”.[11]
  • In a later live recording, Lightfoot recounts that a parishioner of the church informed him that the church is not “musty”. From that time on, instead of singing “In a musty old hall…”, he sang “In a rustic old hall…”[12]
  • In March 2010, Lightfoot changed a line during live performances to reflect new findings that there had been no crew error involved in the sinking. The line originally read, “At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said…”; Lightfoot began singing it as “At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said….” Lightfoot learned about the new research when contacted for permission to use his song for a History Channel documentary that aired on March 31, 2010. Lightfoot stated that he had no intention of changing the original copyrighted lyrics; instead, from then on, he has simply sung the new words during live performances.[13]

Chart performanceEdit

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Single by Gordon Lightfoot
from the album Summertime Dream
B-side“The House You Live In”
ReleasedAugust 1976
RecordedDecember 1975
StudioEastern Sound Studios, Toronto
GenreFolk rocksoft rockprogressive folk[1]
Length6:30 (album version)5:57 (single edit)
Songwriter(s)Gordon Lightfoot
Producer(s)Lenny WaronkerGordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot singles chronology
Rainy Day People” 
(1975)”The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” 
(1976)”Race Among the Ruins” 
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on YouTube
Weekly chartsEditChart (1976–1977)Peak
positionAustralian KMR[14]46Canadian RPM Top Singles1Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary Tracks1Canadian RPM Country Tracks1US Billboard Hot 100[15]2US Billboard Easy Listening9US Billboard Hot Country Singles50US Cash Box Top 100[16]1
Year-end chartsEditChart (1976)RankCanada RPM Top Singles[17]12US (Joel Whitburn‘s Pop Annual)[18]36US Cash Box[19]22


The song was recorded in December 1975 at Eastern Sound,[20] a recording studio composed of two Victorian houses at 48 Yorkville Avenue in a then-hippie district of downtown Toronto. The famous studio, which also recorded RushCat StevensBruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix, was later torn down and replaced by a parking lot.[21]

Pee Wee Charles and Terry Clements came up with “the haunting guitar and steel riffs” on a “second take” during the evening session.[22]

Lightfoot cleared the studio and killed all the lights save the one illuminating his parchment of scribbled words when recording his vocal part.[23]


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