nervous wreck

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a song written, composed, and performed by Gordon Lightfoot in commemoration of the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. It was inspired by the Newsweek article on the event, "The Cruelest Month," which appeared in the issue of November 24, 1975. The song originally appeared on Lightfoot's 1976 album, Summertime Dream, and was later released as a single. The single reached #2 on the Billboard pop charts in November 1976, making it Lightfoot's second most successful (in terms of chart position) single, with "Sundown" reaching number one in 1974.

The artistic licenses Lightfoot took

The song contains a few historical and stylistic errors. These may all be attributed to artistic licenses that Lightfoot took in writing the lyrics.

  1. The song mentions that Fitzgerald was fully loaded and headed for Cleveland; she was in fact headed for Detroit, but was to dock in Cleveland for the rest of the winter.
  2. The song refers to the Fitzgerald consistently as a ship; historical and current Great Lakes parlance refers to all Lake vessels, from the smallest dinghy to thousand-foot freighters such as the Fitzgerald was, as "boats."
  3. The "Maritime Sailors Cathedral" Lightfoot refers to in the song is actually called "The Mariners' Church of Detroit."
  4. Capt. Ernest McSorley stated over the radio, until the boat sank, that they were "holding our own." What the cook or any other crew member did or did not say will never be known. Calling for help, unless the boat was actually known to be sinking, was considered verboten in the very machismo-driven Great Lakes shipping culture of the middle 1970s. Furthermore, even if the boat had in fact called for help, it is doubtful, under the actual conditions of the gale, whether neighboring vessels would have been able to render any real assistance.

Cultural references


  • The tune and rhyming structure were borrowed in 1984 by Christy Moore for his song, "I Wish I Were Back Home in Derry," which is itself an adaptation of Bobby Sands's poem, "The Voyage."
  • The structure, chord progression, and general sound of the song itself are extremely similar to those of the Jefferson Airplane song "Lather."
  • The song was covered by Tony Rice on his album Church Street Blues.
  • The song was covered twice by The Dandy Warhols, on their albums Come On Feel The Dandy Warhols and The Black Album. The version on Come On Feel is very similar in style to the original, whereas the version on The Black Album (simply titled "The Wreck") has more of a psychedelic rock feel to it.
  • It was covered as an 8:45 epic by the Rheostatics on 1991 on their album Melville.
  • Michael Angelo (not to be confused with Michael Angelo Batio) covered it in a 7:15 long acoustic version recorded live at The Depot, in Minneapolis. It was released on the album Michael Angelo Live: The Crossings of Mackinaw. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is the second song on the CD.
  • Texas country artist Brian Burns covered the song on his album Heavy Weather. This version includes a recreation of the annual Mariners' Church memorial, with all 29 crew member names being read as a bell is tolled.
  • Heavy metal band Jag Panzer recorded a cover of this song and released it as a 7" vinly limited to 500 copies that was old exclusively at festivals and through the band and Century Media. It was also available as a free download on their homepage. To date it has not appeared on any of their other albums and is not currently available for downnload on the bands website.
  • The Canadian band The Tragically Hip covered the song during their encore performance of a show in Cleveland. It has not been released in any of their albums, but the song can be found on-line, as fans recorded the live performance and it has been made available for download on various sites.
  • Laura Cantrell performs the song on her 2008 covers album, Trains and Boats and Planes.
  • Canadian band Clay covered the song on their full album debut Marigold and Zenia.
  • Paul Gross intended to use the song for the Due South episode Mountie on the Bounty; Lightfoot granted permission on the condition the families of the sailors agree. But reluctant to cause the families additional pain, Gross and Jay Semko instead wrote and composed "32 Down on the Robert Mackenzie" for the episode.


  • The musical political satire group The Capitol Steps recorded a parody called "The Wreck of the Walter Fritz Mondale" following the 1984 election. The song appeared on their first album.
  • Camille West wrote a parody of the song, The Nervous Wreck of Edna Fitzgerald, which appears on Four Bitchin' Babes's album Gabby Road.
  • The Gorgo episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 features a scene where a ship survives a terrible storm (against all reason). Crow references the song with his lyric "They got into port / Everyone was okay / They went out and had lunch and felt better."
  • Boston radio WROR-FM 105.7 featured "The Rectum of Edmund Fitzgerald" as a "Tom's Townie Tune" by Tom Doyle.

In the media

  • Comedian Richard Jeni used to reference the song in his standup monologues, insisting that the sad lyrics were useful for getting party guests who have overstayed their welcome to go home.
  • In the movie High Fidelity, the character Dick (Todd Louiso) puts the song in the number five spot of the list "Top 5 songs about death. A Laura's Dad tribute list". Aspiring musician Barry (Jack Black) remarks "that song is so good, it should have been mine!".
  • In the Seinfeld episode "The Andrea Doria," Jerry and Elaine discuss the song. Elaine believes that Edmund Fitzgerald wrote the song and that Gordon Lightfoot was the ship that sunk. Jerry sarcastically responds that perhaps "it was rammed by the Cat Stevens," another folk singer of the 1970s.
  • Radio talk show host T.D. Mischke had an interview with an expert on the tragedy, but opted to sing his questions to the tune of the song. This was done without any warning to the person interviewed, who nonetheless answered back in a straightforward manner. Details of his interview made national media, including The Atlantic Monthly.
  • On the commentary for the third season DVDs of The Simpsons on the episode entitled "Radio Bart", the show's producers claim that the tune used to advertise the prank microphone, "Convoy" was meant to be "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," but in the DVD Commentary for the episode, Matt Groening states that due to the fact Gordon Lightfoot gave the rights and royalties of the song to the families of the sailors lost in the sinking, its use presented a logistical impossibility of gathering permission from so many sources.
  • Pro wrestler Mick Foley stated in his autobiography Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks that he had written a song about one of his childhood friends to the tune of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".
  • On alternative rock band Weezer's sixth album The Red Album, the song is referenced in "Heart Songs."


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