Gordon Lightfoot Corrected Own Lyrics in a Famous Song

He changed words in the 'Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' to get the facts right
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 2, 2023 11:19 AM CDT
Updated May 6, 2023 6:30 AM CDT

It really had no business being a hit. But Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" nevertheless rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1976 and has endured since as a folk classic. As the New York Times explains, the song was unusual in that it clocked in at six minutes or so, roughly twice as long as a typical pop hit. Plus, it dealt with somber subject matter: the real-life sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald bulk freighter on Lake Superior in 1975, a tragedy in which none of the 29 men aboard survived.

Usually, a hit song is “boy meets girl, boy breaks up with girl, or come back, or you left me, or whatever,” says Eric Greenberg, a longtime friend of the Canadian singer, who died Monday at 84. “Not a five-, six-, seven-minute story—a factual story, in Gordon’s case, painstakingly checked to make sure that all the facts are right.” He's not kidding about that last part, and WXYZ provides an example of just how meticulous Lightfoot was. The original lyrics read:

  • "When supper time came the old cook came on deck, Saying ‘Fellows it’s too rough to feed ya.' At 7pm a main hatchway caved in, he said, ‘Fellas it's been good to know ya.'”
  • But after learning the hatchway event was inaccurate, Lightfoot changed the words: "When supper time came the old cook came on deck, Saying ‘Fellows it’s too rough to feed ya.' At 7pm it grew dark, it was then, he said, ‘Fellas it's been good to know ya.'”

Lightfoot said in a 2010 interview with Connect Savannah that of all his songs, he was most proud of "Edmund Fitzgerald." After it came out, he stayed in touch with family members of the men who were lost in the sinking. The Times notes one drawback of the song's popularity: Diving trophy hunters flocked to the site, which upset the family members. As a result, the Canadian government has since protected the site. (More Gordon Lightfoot stories.)

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