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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.