Happy Halloween! In honor of this auspicious holiday, I would like to talk about a song that sounds like late autumn to me -- "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot. This particular Jay Hears A Song is brought to you by Anonymous,* who reminded me of this song one day, and now it's on my iPod all the time. So thank you, Anonymous (I think :) ).

The thing about "The Wreck" is that it is a song that, by all rights, I should not like, but because of my own personal history with it, I do. In case you haven't heard it, it's a folk song about the wreck of a boat called the Edmund Fitzgerald**, which sank in 1975 in Lake Superior. The events surrounding the sinking are semi-mysterious*** and this mystery is what I think led in part to the song's longevity (at least to me). Let's face it--there's not much drama in "there was a big storm and a boat sank." Also, as much as I personally enjoy it, "The Wreck"? Not a great song.

Why isn't it such a great song? A bunch of reasons.

1. It's too long, for one thing. At over six minutes, it's a really long song for one that doesn't have a catchy chorus.

2. It's got some rhyme and meter issues. There are some good stanzas, like this one:

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

But there are also some really really bad ones, like this clunker****:

Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er.

Really, Gordon Lightfoot? Rhyming "hours" to "'er"? That's...not good. And the shift from "they" to "her"? Pick one, man, at least within the sentence.

3. Also, there's a bunch of repetition in here that maybe isn't the best. Sometimes when I listen to the song I think "how many times do I have to hear about the damn wind of November? Seriously!" There's a lot of wind and November in this song. A LOT.

4. The music is boring. I know it was the 70s and all, but still. Boring. Take a listen:


So why do I like this song, despite its obvious (to me) flaws?

Another list of reasons:

1. I first heard it when I was a little girl, and it tells a really dramatic story. What little kid doesn't like a song about a shipwreck?

2. It mentions Wisconsin, and I'm from Wisconsin, and I thought that was sooo cool, when I was a little kid.

3. It also mentions Cleveland, where I live now, and the strange thing is that, in some ways, "The Wreck" feels like a song that connects my past to my present. I am the Edmund Fitzgerald, from Wisconsin to Cleveland, now with fewer fatal shipwrecks.******

4. Have I mentioned it's about a mysterious shipwreck?

5. For some reason, because it imprinted on me when I was a child, and because it's fundamentally a song about the Great Lakes, where I've lived for the majority of my life, and because it summons up the spectre of harsh autumns on the lakes, the song has always reminded me of home.

It makes you wonder how things become important to people, doesn't it? How this song, which is not a song a really like at all, has become a song I love.


* I know Anonymous in real life.

** I know! Shocking, isn't it?

*** I say "semi-mysterious" because the boat never sent a distress signal and no one really knows what happened to her, but she sank during a really awful storm so...not that mysterious, actually.

**** Which is the stanza right before that good one.

***** Yeah, and this is the exciting live version, too!

****** Another odd coincidence for me is the connection between Wisconsin and Ohio in the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I was back home in a Milwaukee suburb when he was caught -- I'd actually gone to a party on his block only the week before -- and when I moved to Ohio I was stunned to find out that he lived not far from me while he was here. These are, of course, coincidences and don't mean anything except that the connections tie disparate bits of my life together. Sorry...from folk song to serial killer; we've taken quite a detour here!


Ha, I knew you would have this song on your iPod sooner or later! Oh yeah, it's way too long but that's part of its charm. It overstays its welcome and then some and then before you know it, somehow feels fresh again. Mrs. Anonymous and I laugh about this song all the time because it's so strange: it's both an awful and a great song. An awfully great song? A terrifically awful song? Who knows?

Gordon Lightfoot gets some credit these days and he's definitely one of those 70s singer/songwriter types but he actually has a nice touch with his lyrics, even when they're clunking along.

I have many useless theories about music but one of my favorites is this: trying to determine if a song could be released today and still be a hit, no matter when it was released in the past. Believe it or not, this thing would still be a hit. In spite of itself, it works. It's the idea, the lyrics, and the SOUND of it. That melody, over and over again. Once you've heard it, it's hard to unhear it. All you have to do is think about it and if you've ever heard it before, you'll be humming that pattern over and over until you either kill yourself or something else takes its place.

They should make children sing this song in school, especially at concerts where parents are present. If you're going to make parents listen to their children sing, you ought to give them a good test of their mettle.

Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 9:41:00 PM EST  

I had to post again because the next word verification that came up was "frikes."

As in: That scared the frikes out of me.

Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 9:42:00 PM EST  

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