Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

This moring on the radio I heard that today is the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Of course, like most people my age I first heard about this tragedy from Gordon Lightfoot and at the time I really had no idea how good his song is.

I did a little research into laker freighters for my novel, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, because I walk my dog along the waterfront in Toronto and saw quite a few of the big boats and I thought that might be a good place for a marijuana grow-op. The old brewery in Barrie had just been discovered to be a huge grow-op and I figured any big, empty space would do. And then I moved on to the next book and pretty much forgot about laker freighters. I still see them when I'm walking my dog and they still seem really cool.

And after mentioning the anniversary, the radio played Gordon Lightfoot's song, The Wreck of the Edmud Fitzgerald, and I really listened to it for the first time and realized what powerful storytelling it is. All those things they try to teach us in writing classes about using the fewest words to paint the biggest picture, to try and get the emotions across and not just the details.

"Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland..."

Just enough detail.

"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."

Personal, matter-of-fact, it's Heningwayesque.

"Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours..."

I've read novels that used page after page, hundreds, thousands of words to get that same emotion across. There are a lot of lessons for writers in the simple, direct, personal storytelling of this song and maybe the most important one is the respect that Lightfoot shows for the men who lost their lives. That respect is something we talk about a lot in crime fiction and I need to remind myself about often.


Patty said...

Has always been a favorite of mine. Both the song and the man. :)

Paul D Brazill said...

Yep, great song.

Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a good song, but your post may be a good argument for avoiding considering pop-song lyrics separately from their music.

"Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms" somehow makes me wince, though at least he included the necessary "of," unlike many Americans.

And then there's "Back Home in Derry".
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

John McFetridge said...

Interesting Peter, I'd never heard of that song.

What I liked about the "concluding some terms" line was how specific it was, steel firms and then mentioning Cleveland.

Though you're right, it wouldn't be much of a poem (frankly, niether is Bobby Sands'). The music, and especially Lightfoot's voice, really make it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We hear a lot of here this time of year. Always makes me sad.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I was gobsmacked when I bought a CD by a local Irish band and heard that familiar tune opening the record. Song lyrics often throw in a word whose only purpose is to fill out a line or create a rhyme. That's not fatal if the music is strong enough, but it's a killer in prose, and that's what you turn the lyric into when you take away the music. "Some" is extraneous in Lightfoot's lyric, as are the lines "... at the English and thought of tomorrow" in Bobby Sands' lyric.

But that's not what we remember those guys for. Lightfoot was a fine singer. I like his casting of a contemporary story in an older folk form, resonant with doom, as an old folk song ought to be. And Bobby Sands was a fine hunger striker.

In re Derry, I met Hillary Davidson at Noircon in Philadelphia, and I found out she has family in Derry. She'll also be reading at Sleuth of Baker Street next week, and I may come up to hear her and to visit my brother. Will you be in town? The author of "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" ought to know the author of "The Damage Done."
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

"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."

Now, that's good.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Lo, here's the version of "Back Home in Derry" I referred to above.

Dana King said...

I'd heard the song many times before, usually as background music somewhere. Never paid much attention to the words. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. That is great storytelling.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Looks like I will be in TO this week.

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