The Real-Life Shipwreck That Inspired A Hit 1970s Folk Song

Have you ever heard of the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot? Anyone with even a passing interest in folk music has surely encountered the tune, as have many others who don’t. The track was a big hit in the ’70s, but despite its widespread appeal, this song is as dark as it gets. It tells the tale of a real-life tragedy that can still give us chills today.

A recent passing

It’s worth taking a fresh look at Lightfoot’s hit song now in light of his recent passing on May 1, 2023. At the grand old age of 84, he left a tremendous back catalog behind him: the Canadian’s wonderful songs, performed in his distinctive baritone, will endure long after his departure.

Rising to the top

Lightfoot’s rise began at the start of the ’60s in his native Canada, but before long he was being noticed overseas, too. Big stars of the day started to cover his songs, including folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. He became known as one of the scene’s very best alongside the likes of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.

A famous fan

Dylan was especially fond of Lightfoot. As reported in 2023 by The New York Times, he once remarked, “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like... Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.” These weren’t just empty words, either, as Dylan also covered Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”

A popular appeal

Lightfoot’s early career was riding a wave of popular interest in folk music, but this began to waver a little with the rise of the British rock ’n’ roll bands. When this happened, Lightfoot turned to writing music that was intended to appeal to more mainstream tastes. This brought him a great deal of success, with songs like “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” and “Rainy Day People” proving wildly popular. But there was one song that was particularly unique: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”