Gordon Lightfoot exercised some lyrical license when he wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” but the Canadian balladeer paid painstaking attention to the facts when he wrote the line that would haunt him for decades.
New evidence, uncovered a few years ago by a National Geographic research team, led him to take back his words, however, modifying the version he sings on tours these days.
Lightfoot’s signature ballad tells the tale of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore freighter that sank in a sudden Lake Superior storm Nov. 10, 1975, taking 29 men down with her.
On the original recording, the critical line plays: “At 7 p.m. the main hatchway caved in.” In performances now, however, Lightfoot sings: “At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was dim.”
An avid sailor, he knew it was a loaded lyric from the start, raising culpability questions for the deck hands responsible for securing the freighter’s hatch covers.
He took the information for the original recording directly from news reports and Coast Guard documents, however, he said in a phone interview from his home in Toronto.
Even so, it remained a difficult line for Lightfoot, especially when sung before sailors, skippers and friends and relatives of the doomed ship’s crew.
He’s done that many times over the decades, as the song has become an enduring ode to those lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald and a folk hymn for all of those who have perished on hundreds of ships swallowed by the Great Lakes.
He recalled a church performance before an audience that included 18 Great Lakes ship captains.
“When I got to the part about the hatch covers, I had to cringe a little bit,” Lightfoot said.
He was able to rewrite the line several years ago, after the National Geographic research “proved it was not the hatch covers that caused the fatal accident,” he said. “They proved that the Edmund Fitzgerald broke in half.”
Lightfoot can’t change the lyric on the recording of his signature work, but the new line allows him to sing the ballad before any audience without wincing.
He couldn’t have known when he wrote it, but his song has forged a bond with the families of those lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald, he said.
At 75, he still performs at reunions for the crew’s families, “and I stay in touch with them all the time. It’s a responsibility that will not leave me.”
He also supports a maritime scholarship.
Lightfoot has scored lots of hits in his career, including “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway” and “Rainy Day People,” but none is more hauntingly enduring than “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
His voice registered humility, pride and gratitude when he talked about his song’s role in keeping the crew’s memory alive.
“I wrote a song about some people who had great misfortune,” he said. “Of some 250 vessels that have floundered in the Great Lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald will be remembered.”
And the final line of Lightfoot’s song acknowledges all the others, who, like the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, have been lost without a trace:
“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.”