Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

"The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" is one of Canada's most well-known folk songs of the past few decades, written and performed by Gordon Lightfoot. It was written about a cargo ship that sunk in Lake Superior on November 10th of 1975. I'm sitting here waiting for the local forestry office to open, and I was reminded of the song a few times this week, so I thought I'd write a little bit about it.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was often referred to as "Big Fitz." It was an ore carrier that sailed on Lake Superior for seventeen years before it sank, and set haul records for six of those seventeen years. Due to its size, it was also sometimes referred to as the "Titanic of the Great Lakes." How fitting.

Grant Williams, a financial analyst, wrote about the ship a few weeks ago in one of his newsletters. Here's what he had to say:

Big Fitz ... was the Great Lakes freighter that carried taconite from Duluth to the iron works in the then-thriving Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio.

When she was launched in 1958, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest boat on the Great Lakes. 729 feet long with a 75ft beam and a 25 foot draft, she could carry 26,000 DWT in her 33' 4”deep hold. Powered by a Coal fired Westinghouse Electric Corporation steam turbine 2 cylinder, she had a top speed of 14 knots and carried a crew of 29.

On November 9, 1975, Big Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of taconite iron ore pellets in Superior, Wisconsin and embarked on what would tragically turn out to be her final voyage - a routine crossing of Lake Superior, bound for a steel mill in Detroit, Michigan.

The next day, November 10th, Big Fitz found herself caught in the midst of a massive winter storm, with 35 ft waves and hurricane force winds. Captain Ernest McSorely, a 44-year veteran, made contact with the Avafor, a nearby ship, and reported that he had encountered “one of the worst seas he had ever been in”.

A couple of hours later, with Big Fitz roughly 17 miles from the relative safety of Whitefish Bay at the northeastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, another ship made contact and was told that the Titanic of The Great Lakes was holding her own. Then something strange happened ... the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar screens.
(Incidentally, Grant was comparing the Euro to the Edmund Fitzgerald).


Let's listen to the song:




Many Canadians know a lot of the lines to the song by heart. Let's look at a few of them. As with most folk tales, some are rooted in fact and some use a bit of artistic license:

With a load of iron ore, twenty-six thousand tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
This seems to be pretty accurate, if the other comment about carrying 26,116 tons of pellets is true.

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck and said fellas it's too rough to feed ya.
Well, since there was no communication with the ship in this kind of detail, who knows what the old cook said. And incidentally, it was a "new cook" - the regular cook was sick and missed the voyage.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms, when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
Not quite accurate; they were headed for Detroit at the time.

The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay, if they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.
The ship sank only seventeen miles away from the safety of Whitefish Bay.

The captain wired in he had water comin' in, and the good ship and crew was in peril.
Actually, there was no indication that there was any trouble until the ship disappeared off the radar screens.


Another reason why I was thinking about this song recently is because we were studying it in one of my music production classes at Berklee this week. The key is interesting, because it's written in B Dorian rather than A Major. Dorian keys are minor keys which sound moody and gloomy. Basically, for Dorian, you drop the third and seventh degrees of the scale by a half-tone each, so it's like a B Major but with a D natural and an A natural. It's hard to hold the intent of the key in a Dorian, so you have to use the tonic frequently (the B chord at the beginning and end of each verse), to counter the tendency to resolve to A major.

That's all for today, I'm running out of time and I've got to run because BCTS is about to open. You can learn more trivia about the song in this wikapedia article, if you're interested.