Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconson
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the words turn the minutes to hours
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd fifteen more miles behind her.

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.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the ruins of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams,
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.
--Gordon Lightfoot

This song, suggested by my brother Steve in his comments to Hiawatha, is very much in the tradition of the old ballads of the sea, often composed by sailors to commemorate great battles or shipwrecks. There's a very simple tune, and the rhythm and rhyme schemes don't have to be followed very closely. The import thing in this kind of poem/song is that it's easy to sing and remember.

This song commemorates an actual tragedy that happened on Nov 10, 1975. There was a bad storm, and the overloaded ship began taking on water through hatches that wouldn't quite seal (they were scheduled for repair at the end of that month when shipping stopped for the winter). The ship lost both its radars, began to list (lean over to one side because of uneven weight in the hold), and eventually just couldn't recover when hit by a couple of especially big waves. There's an excellent explanation of the conditions and radio communications throughout the night at this site.

Peter's sister Helena kindly found the lyrics to the filk song The Ballad of Apollo XIII for us, but since this post is long enough already, I'll put them in as a comment.


  1. Helena was able to find the lyrics for me.


    The Ballad of Apollo XIII (words: William Warren,
    music: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot)

    There's legends galore in the pulp SF lore
    'Bout shipwrecks of spacers a-spacin',
    When meteor holes come 'tween men and their goals
    By demolishing ships that they're racin'.

    Painting pictures with words like none you've ever heard,
    SF writers made frightening predictions.
    But the terrors they tell cannot equal the hell
    Faced by three men in fact, and not fiction.

    To April 11, 1970, now,
    We must let our narrative carry us.
    Three men in a C-S-M named Odyssey;
    Beneath them, the LM named Aquarius.

    With a furious roar, Saturn leapt for the sky
    With Jack Swiggart, Fred Haise, and Jim Lovell,
    Toward a planned rendezvous that would never come true
    With the gray lunar gravel and rubble.

    Still, they set up housekeeping in orbit 'round Earth,
    Then translunar insertion was kindled,
    But the public just yawned, for their landing was third,
    And behind them old Terra slow dwindled.

    Apollo XIII travelled on down the track
    Laid down by the three laws of Newton.
    At fifty-six hours into lunar bound coast,
    Lovell said, "Houston, we have a problem."

    Now they may have been struck by a meteorite.
    Maybe something had just overloaded.
    But their panels went red with their malfunction lights
    And in Odyssey something exploded.

    That blast blocked or ruptured their fuel cell lines;
    Their electrical energy faltered.
    With no hope at all of a rescue in time
    Thirteen's mission profile had altered.

    To physics and God they commended their lives,
    For no power on earth could have saved 'em.
    Although NASA let the men talk with their wives,
    Of goodbyes there was never a mention.

    Three men in a C-S-M bound for the Moon
    Reached two hundred and six thousand miles.
    Did they have enough air to get all the way there?
    Could they trust what they read on their dials?

    And when they reached Luna, could they change course for home?
    Would she trap them, or loose them at random?
    Untested advice and contingency plans
    Were the only things NASA could hand 'em.

    When Apollo XIII crossed the limb of the Moon
    And death came from the receivers
    We knew the next signal would speak of their doom
    Or answer the faith of believers.

    "Apollo Thirteen, this is Houston. Do you read?"
    Dear God, let them answer us quickly.
    The world held its breath, and in Mission Control
    Every screen lit a face pale and sickly.

    "Apollo Thirteen, this is Houston. Do you read?"
    That empty sound stretched on for years.
    "Houston... This is Thirteen... We're coming home!" said a voice,
    And the world found relief in its tears.

    At T plus one hundred and thirty-eight hours
    They jettisoned Odyssey's wreckage.
    That module was shattered and blasted apart--
    A symbol of death in the space age.

    Aquarius served as their lifeboat to shore,
    'Til they knew they would no longer need her.
    At T plus one hundred and forty-one hours,
    With a deep prayer of "Thank you!" they freed her.

    Ed, Roger, and Gus must have smiled on those days,
    Knowing theirs was the path not to follow.
    But their souls were with Swiggart and Lovell and Haise
    Riding home on the thirteenth Apollo.

    At T plus one hundred forty-three, fifty-four
    Apollo XIII hit the waters.
    Three men returned home, shaken up, but alive,
    To their wives and their sons and their daughters!

    There's legends galore in the pulp SF lore,
    But all of them now do cause men to reflect
    On three days when the world's hearts went racing.

    Painting pictures with words all too few people heard,
    SF writers could make their predictions,
    But always recall that, in spite of them all,
    The truth was much greater than fiction.

    Yes, always recall that, in spite of them all,
    The truth must be greater than fiction.

  2. Thanks, Peter!


  3. I love that movie and the poem is great. I even read part of Lost Moon by Jim Lovell but never finished. Thanks for the poem!


  4. I wrote a poem to that meter a long time ago. I only remember the first two paragraphs:

    An old man sat down in a midwestern town
    in a park where the children were playing.
    They gathered around and they sat on the ground
    Close by, to hear what he was saying.

    "2142 was the year we broke through
    the ranks of the enemy warriors,
    but some of them fled," the old soldier said.
    "Catching them took two or three more years."

    As I recall it went on to copy some themes from the end of Ender's Game.