Forty years ago today, the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest ships on the Great Lakes, broke apart and sank to the bottom of Lake Superior. She was the largest ship to go down in the Great Lakes, and the 29 men on her crew died, their bodies never recovered. No ship this big has sunk on the lakes since. The sinking of El Faro in October with 33 fatalities is, as far as I can tell, by far the deadliest American wreck since. There are still competing theories about what, exactly, happened.
A handsome and record-breaking ship, the Fitzgerald was well-known among shipwatchers when afloat, but now it’s best remembered through Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song is haunting if a bit maudlin, marrying cheesy ’70s guitar licks to folky storytelling. It fits into a long tradition of disaster folk songs, from shipwreck songs like “Sir Patrick Spens” and the Titanic-themed “When That Great Ship Went Down,”to later classic trainwreck chronicles—“The Wreck of the Old 97,” “Casey Jones”—all based (more or less) on historical incidents.
Will anyone write a folk song about El Faro? It seems unlikely. Just as the Edmund Fitzgerald was the last of the great wrecks on the Great Lakes, Lightfoot’s song may be the last great folk song about a ship- or trainwreck.