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Old 04-13-2013, 01:49 PM   #1
charlene
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Default The Wreck - song breakdown

http://www.niemanstoryboard.org/2013...ews-narrative/

Liner notes: storytelling with Gordon Lightfoot (yep, that’s right)

by Tommy Tomlinson | April 12, 2013

Sometimes short nonfiction pays. Today we’re going to talk about a (mostly) nonfiction narrative of 457 words that made it to No. 2 on the pop charts.

In 1975, a freighter named the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a brutal storm on Lake Superior. All 29 crew members died. It was a major news story, especially in the Midwest and Canada, and one of the people who read the accounts was Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. He sat down soon after the shipwreck to write about it. In later interviews, he said he wanted the entire song to be factually accurate. To make it work in a song structure, he had to hedge a little. But not much.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was a sea chantey, plopped into the disco era, and it was more than six minutes long while pop hits tended to top out at three. As the great professor Conrad Fink used to say about any storytelling oddity, “Never do that—unless it works.”

To show why “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” works, I’ve written it out as if it were a news story. The parentheticals are mine. If you want, listen to the song as you go.

***

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

(Right away you get sweep and scope. Lightfoot plants the story in history. And when it comes to a literary hook, “The legend lives on” is right up there with “Once upon a time.”)

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.

(He even has a nut graf! It’s not explicit, but you know the gales of November did something bad to a very big ship. That’s enough—and better than revealing everything up top.)

The ship was the pride of the American side, coming back from some mill in Wisconsin. As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most, with a crew and good 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 ship’s bell rang, could it be the north wind they’d been feeling?

(Building tension. If this were a TV episode, the bell would clang just as the show went to commercial.)

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.

(This section is loaded with sensory detail—the sound of the wind in the wires, the darkness when it’s supposed to be dawn, the tastes and smells that fill your mind just from reading the word “breakfast.” I love the “tattletale sound” of the wind, like a Shakespearean chorus foreshadowing the terror to come.)

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck saying, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.” At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”

(Yeah, this is the part Lightfoot made up.)

The captain wired in—he had water coming in and the good ship and crew was in peril.

And later that night, when its lights went out of sight, came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.


(Songwriters make their living in rhyme, of course, but notice the beautiful internal rhyme in that last sentence. And look how natural it appears in prose. There’s no reason you can’t do that in a newspaper or magazine story.)

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

(This is the second-level nut graf—not the topic of the story, but the meaning of the story. I’d like us to stop for a second to admire that sentence. That’s one hell of a sentence. That’s the universal aspect any great story should push for. It’s also the seed of a thousand dissertations in divinity school.)

The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 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.

(You probably want to change that last “is” to “are”—fair enough. But read that sentence out loud for the rhythm. I can see photos of the survivors being set on a table to that rhythm. Sometimes the beat of a sentence can say more than the words.)

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings in the rooms 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.

(A change in perspective—pulling back from the scene of the shipwreck to a long shot of the Great Lakes. It’s the kind of shot a filmmaker might choose as the climax of the movie fades into the coda. It works in writing, too. It gives the reader a moment to breathe before the end.)

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

(More internal rhyme—“chimed,” “29,” “times.”)

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. Superior, they said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.

(A classic circular story—the ending echoes the beginning. Except now all the words carry more weight, because Lightfoot has hung a story on them.)

Bonus: If you’re around my age, and you tend to complain that kids today don’t know about good music, go look at the Top 40 from the week “Edmund Fitzgerald” peaked. Then let us never speak of this “good music” again. (I owned six of the singles in that Top 10. I’m not about to tell you which six.)

Tommy Tomlinson is a staff writer for Sports on Earth, a new web venture dedicated to great sportswriting. He’s a former local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, and he has written for magazines including Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Southern Living and Garden & Gun. If you’d like to see him explore certain songs, drop him a line at tommy.tomlinson@sportsonearth.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.
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Old 04-13-2013, 04:00 PM   #2
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Default Re: The Wreck - song breakdown

I enjoyed this.

By strict definition, an artist has one true "masterpiece." But because we are talking about Gordon Lightfoot, I have always felt that he has three, and this article helps to explain why TWOTEF is one of them.
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Old 04-13-2013, 05:29 PM   #3
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ah .... but Gordon is the exception to the rule.... he has MANY masterpieces....yep. yep he does.
Yep!
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Old 04-13-2013, 06:09 PM   #4
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Default Re: The Wreck - song breakdown

When I think of a true masterpiece, I think of a work that is so brilliant and so transcendent that it becomes part of our collective consciousness; something greater than the sum of its parts. With Gordon's songs, there are three that, for me, definitely qualify.

CRT - it tells the story of an entire country, and is used as a history text in schools.

TWOTEF - the sound, the imagery, the rhyming, the use of melody and language to evoke the sense of overwhelming tragedy.

IYCRMM - still as gorgeous and poignant as it was more than 40 years ago.

Gordon has so many wonderful, terrific songs that I suppose any number could be considered a masterpiece by a slightly different definition. And that doesn't bother me at all

YEP!
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Old 04-14-2013, 11:31 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by niffer View Post
I enjoyed this.
Me too
That has to be one of the best written apreciations of the brilliance of Gord's handling of lyrics.As i see it all that Mr Tomlinson omitted was to comment on the magical "ice water mansions" and query how many times the darned bell rang was it only 29 times or was it 29 times for each of the 29 victims totalling therefore a crescendo of 841 sonorous clangs?!!
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Old 04-14-2013, 11:55 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by johnfowles View Post
Me too
......the magical "ice water mansions" ......
Having written that I thought I should try to answer an old nagging question "just what is an ice water mansion when it's at home"?? I therefore consulted both Mr Google and Mr Bing to show me images of "ice water mansions" both told me that there is a vocal group called "ice water mansion" and the latter produced this photo


a picture that was originally featured as an "iconic cinema house" on
http://wwwcinemastyle.blogspot.com/2...ma-houses.html
with the caption
"
Dr. Zhivago's (1965) famed "ice palace"/dacha where the doctor and his lover Lara made their refuge was filmed in the middle of summer in Soria, Spain. The sets were dressed in hot wax and sprayed with cold water to resemble the look of frost and ice."
So it is just possible that Gord had recently watched the Doctor Zhivago film whilst composing the Fitz??
DISCUSS!!
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Old 04-14-2013, 01:01 PM   #7
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Default Re: The Wreck - song breakdown

I'd agree on those 3 JP. I was SO thrilled when Lisa brought a new textbook home and there in its pages was a pic of our man and the lyrics to CRT....
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Old 04-14-2013, 01:34 PM   #8
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Default Re: The Wreck - song breakdown

Having experienced Lake Superior up close, I always felt that "ice-water mansions" was just an especially poetic and lovely description of its vastness. It is huge, beautiful, and forbidding, even in the summer.

I have no particular feelings about Dr. Zhivago

It had never even occurred to me that the 29 times was anything other than one chime per lost sailor, not the very lengthy ceremony of 29x29 (and I am trusting you on the math, John )

In 2006, the maritime church in Detroit changed the ceremony, and rang the bell 8 times...1 for each of the Great Lakes, 1 for the Detroit and St Clair rivers, 1 for the St Lawrence Seaway, and 1 for all the sailors lost at sea. I don't know if it was for that year only, or if it is something that has continued.
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Old 04-14-2013, 02:36 PM   #9
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I too have thought it was only 29 times. ONCE per sailor lost..I think the nature of songwriting/poetry restricts precise wording at times but hopefully the listener/reader can suss out the proper meaning.
29 times per sailor? I think not..
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Old 04-14-2013, 04:02 PM   #10
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Default Re: The Wreck - song breakdown

What a difference a comma can make! If you take it away the bell did ring 29 times for each man. But with the comma, the meaning is clear - the bell rang 29 times in total, representing the total loss of life.

I actually think Ice water mansions refers to the icy tombs of the thousands of people who have drowned and never been found. But since the song begins with a Chippewa legend one could continue with the theme. There is an Ojibwa legend about a lynx type creature called Mishipeshu who lives under the water and can cause raging storms and massive waves. I imagine anything with such power would live in a mansion. And it would be icy because the deepest water in Superior never gets much above 40F.
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Old 04-15-2013, 04:10 PM   #11
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http://thestar.blogs.com/worlddaily/...ournalist.html
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Old 04-16-2013, 12:53 AM   #12
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Default Re: The Wreck - song breakdown

"In the rooms of her ice water mansions" is a beautifully poetic phrase because it has more than one possible interpretation, and all of the interpretations add to the richness of the imagery.

As the place where "Superior sings", it is the physical location, the home, of the lake itself, filled with icy water. Moreover, as Superior is the lake which never gives up its dead, it is also the home of the dead who will never leave the icy lake. Finally, it is a description of the shipwrecks at the bottom of the lakes, the eternal dwellings holding the lost dead. All of those images, and perhaps more, are evoked by the poetry of the line.

BTW, as a matter of historical record, the church bells rang once for each sailor, so the comma is necessary.
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