Forty Years Ago, An Event Created an Important Radio Song by Gordon Lightfoot

Back in the days when radio announcers had to play actual records and CDs (as opposed to high-powered hard drive playback systems), we all had a set of songs we treasured for their length. Long songs were necessary for bathroom breaks, smoke breaks and dashes to the kitchen to find something to eat. One of the most important for Top 40 and AC announcers was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

At 6 minutes and 32 seconds (5:57 for the single edit), it saved many a DJ from biological embarassments. Lightfoot wrote the song after reading an article in Newsweek entitled “The Cruelest Month” which detailed the sinking of USS Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes freighter that sank in a storm on Lake Superior 40 years ago today.

The song was a massive hit in Canada, reaching #1 on the singles charts. In the US, it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It even squeaked into the Top 40 in the UK.

While much of the song is historically accurate, Wikipedia points out some issues with the lyrical content. For example, the song says the ship was headed for Cleveland when in fact she was headed for Detroit. As for the old cook in the song, he wasn’t there. The ship’s regular cook was ill and was replaced on this voyage by a substitute.

Still, it’s a great bit of balladry told in 6/8 time.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Forty Years Ago, An Event Created an Important Radio Song by Gordon Lightfoot

  • November 10, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    An amazing song! I can still remember sitting in the amphitheatre at Killbear Provincial Park watching a presentation about the great lakes, and hearing the song for the first time. The part about “Superior sings in the rooms of her ice-water mansion” still gives me chills.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.