Saturday Singles Nos. 40 & 41

Originally posted October 10, 2007

A number of years ago, during a driving tour around Lake Superior, my then-companion and I stopped at a maritime museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at the eastern end of the big lake. We wandered through displays about the shipping industry on the Great Lakes, seeing this old logbook and that old uniform, likely learning more than we had expected but being – at least in my case – curiously unmoved by what we were seeing.

The museum, located on an old ship, was okay, but it didn’t grab my attention. There was nothing there that communicated to me the power and romance of the lakes, especially Superior, a body of water so large that it’s really not a lake but an inland sea.

And then we went back on deck and saw a battered lifeboat. Perhaps thirty feet long and made of thick steel, the boat sat malformed on the deck of the museum ship, twisted and bent, mute testimony to the power of the lake where its parent vessel had plied its trade. The name of the parent ship stenciled onto the lifeboat? The Edmund Fitzgerald.

It was thirty-two years ago today that a November storm sent the Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior. I think it’s safe to say that except for those whose lives are intertwined with the Great Lakes’ shipping industry, the boat’s sinking would be a dim memory today were it not for Gordon Lightfoot. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a single taken off his Summertime Dream album in 1976, provides an indelible and haunting reminder of the events of November 10, 1975.

All-Music Guide, in its review of Summertime Dream, notes: “As for ‘Edmund Fitzgerald,’ its continued popularity . . . attests to the power of a well-told tale and a tasty guitar lick.” I think the popularity of the song is more complex than that, however. To me, one of the main reasons for the song’s enduring vitality is that, in 1976, it brought to popular culture for one of the few times in many years a true example of folk music.

Folk music, as it’s been defined since about 1965, is music with primarily acoustic instrumentation. (When electric instrumentation is added, one finds folk’s cousin, folk rock.) That’s a pretty sparse and broad definition, but it has to be to bring into the fold of folk music all the performers who have been described since the mid-Sixties as folk artists, as the genre evolved into singer/songwriter music.

A more narrow and purist definition would call folk music only that music that has been passed on via an oral tradition. The practicality of requiring an oral tradition, however, long ago went by the wayside, most likely in 1952 with the release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music on Folkways Records, a collection that provided both inspiration and material, according to the testimony of Bob Dylan and many other folkies of the 1960s. Requiring folk music today to have an oral source rather than a recorded source would mean that any musician who performs, say, “Man of Constant Sorrow” after hearing it on Dylan’s first album or on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? is singing a song that is no longer folk music, and that constraint, to me, is silly.

So I think that worrying about the source of the music isn’t the place to look when talking about folk music. I think we’re better off looking at content: What is the song about?

And in much of the music that was considered classic, traditional folk – the music contained in the Smith anthology and more – commemoration of and commentary on the events of the day was central. Cultural memory was preserved in live song in those years before everyone saw the news on CNN and before everyone could listen to the song on a record player or a CD player or an iPod. Answering the question of “What happened when?” is a central part of much classic, traditional folk music.

I suppose it’s possible that a wide audience actually learned of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald from Lightfoot’s song. Here in the northland, the sinking was major news and the recording was more a reminder than anything. That might not have been the case elsewhere in the U.S. and certainly wasn’t the case around the world. But for both audiences – those who already knew about the Edmund Fitzgerald and those who learned about it through the song – Gordon Lightfoot’s song provides a commemoration of the event, and to me, that is the core function of folk music, to provide common memory of the events that form and transform our communities.

Only a few performers have recorded “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” since Lightfoot released it in 1976 (when it went to No. 2 on the Top 40 chart). One version that I like is by country and bluegrass artist Tony Rice, who recorded the song for his 1983 album, Church Street Blues, and included it on Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot in 1996.

And it’s impossible for me to write about “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” without sharing the original from Summertime Dream. (Those who seek the recording are advised to find Summertime Dream and avoid the mediocre remake of the song that Lightfoot recorded and released in 1988 on Gord’s Gold, Vol. 2.)

So here are two versions of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for a double Saturday Single.

Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” [1976]

Tony Rice – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” [1983]

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One Response to “Saturday Singles Nos. 40 & 41”

  1. A Baker’s Dozen From 1963 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] I wrote earlier this month about “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and then about the fortunes this season of my […]

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