The Witch of November

This week’s theme for Sunday Song Lyric is “Precipitation”. Of course, there are hundreds of songs that reference rain and picking just one was a difficult task.

In the end I chose a track from one of Canada’s most prolific songwriters. It was once said that SOCAN, the Canadian equivalent of ASCAP, maintained the collected works of Canadian artists in the main archive and then maintain a separate room in the archive to hold the collected works of Gordon Lightfoot. Keep in mind this was before the age of electronic storage and likely an old wives’ tale but it speaks to how prolific Lightfoot was as a songwriter.

I can think of several Lightfoot songs referencing rain including such hits as “Rainy Day People” and “Early Morning Rain”. Those are not the songs I have settled on for today’s challenge. The song I have chosen does not explicitly speak of the rain although it does mention ‘freezing rain’ in the lyric. Instead, as you listen to the song you can feel the freezing November rain driving across the deck as Lightfoot skillfully weaves through his tail of mariner woe.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a ballad about the ill-fated laker bound for Cleveland holding over 26 thousand tons of iron ore in its belly. It first appeared on Lightfoot’s 1976 “Summertime Dream” album and was released as a single in August of the same year. The tale Lightfoot weaves takes its lead from the real life SS Edmund Fitzgerald that was swallowed up by the inland sea the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes referred to as Gitche Gumee. Of course, we know the lake as Superior, the westernmost of the five great North American lakes separating Ontario from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the American rust belt.

Superior, the largest of the 5 bodies of water is more an inland sea than a lake. Its size and icy waters give it the ability to spawn its own deadly weather systems. From the song, “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead | When the gales of November come early.

The importance of Great Lakes shipping has diminished greatly in the new millennium but during the previous century those shipping routes were the lifeblood of the ports that dotted the shorelines. As the shipping season drew to its close there was a push to supply the industrial cities of the Great Lakes with needed materials to remain productive over the long winter months. The dangers of early winter storms, especially on Superior, were a reality for freight lakers tasked with delivering those supplies. Lightfoot’s tribute immortalizes a fate the SS Edmund Fitzgerald could not escape.

The Edmund Fitzgerald wasn’t the only ship to succumb to Superior but she was the largest. A massive 729 feet in length made her the largest boat on the Great Lakes at her launch on June 7th, 1958. When she sank on November 10th, 1975, she took her cargo and the lives of the entire crew of 29 to an icy grave.

Edmund Fitzgerald’s final resting place near Whitefish Point, Lake Superior.

As a kid of eight or nine, and not really having cut my teeth on what would be the music of my generation, I remember this song. When Toronto radio station CFRB would play “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on the little transistor radio that my Mom kept atop the kitchen fridge in our home on Stillmeadow Road, I stopped whatever I was doing and listened. Even today when I hear the song I get a tear in my eye.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
[In later versions: That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed]
When the gales of November came early

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
Then later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin'
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Saying, "Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya."
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
[In later versions: At seven PM it grew dark, it was then]
He said, "Fellas, it's been good to know ya."
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen 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

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

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
[In later versions: In a rustic old hall in Detroit they prayed]
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
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

Written by Gordon Lightfoot

Contains prompt from
Jim Adam’s Sunday Song Lyric.
Date: 2022-03-12 | Theme: Precipitation

Header Photo: Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum | Final Resting Place Illustrations: J. Clary | Album Art:
Copyright 2022 Greg Glazebrook, All Rights Reserved.


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