How Historically Accurate Is Gordon Lightfoot's Song Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald?

Throughout the history of popular music, sometimes songs about relatively obscure subject matter have made the charts. For example, Michael Sembello's 1983 hit "Maniac" is, according to Sonic News, about a serial killer, while Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River" is about a lime-flavored drink that John Fogerty enjoyed back in the day.

You would think that a mournful dirge about a fatal shipwreck would hardly be fodder for radio airplay and the Billboard Top 40, but leave it to Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot to pull it off. His 1976 track "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (posted on YouTube) is about the ship breaking apart and sinking during a storm on the Great Lakes, an event that actually happened in 1975 (per the Shipwreck Museum). Lightfoot got the general structure of the event correct, but he had to take certain liberties in order to produce a compelling narrative with consistent rhyme and meter.

The basic facts are there

On November 10, 1975, according to Shipwreck Museum, the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a bad storm on Lake Superior, claiming the lives of all 29 men aboard. Gordon Lightfoot commemorated the event in what is perhaps his most famous song. However, Lightfoot himself was concerned about inaccuracies in the lyrics even as he was putting pen to paper, according to WRKR, until his producer told him to "just tell a story." The song "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" can be thought of as a story, not an historical account.

For example, one line says the ship was "coming back from some mill in Wisconsin" and was "fully loaded for Cleveland." Neither of those things were true: the ship disembarked from a dock in Superior, Wisconsin, and was actually headed for an island near Detroit. Similarly, according to American Songwriter, Lightfoot made the ship's cook a key character in the song, when in fact there's no knowledge of what he did or did not do when the ship was sinking. The final verse mentions a "musty old hall" in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral." In fact, Detroit's Mariners' Church, as it's actually called, is in no way musty. Some of the church's attendees and caretakers were rather put out by this characterization. In performance Lightfoot changes the line to "rustic old hall."