My son and I recently purchased tickets to see the wonderful Canadian performer, Gordon Lightfoot. As a part of the generation that grew into maturity during the 1970’s, Lightfoot (like so many others) became a voice for us, and their song-writing skills reflected what was going on in our culture. Many of the songs were about the protest of the Vietnam War, encouraging peace and love, and pushing the anti-establishment movement. The great anthem, American Pie by Don Mclean, spoke about this shift in the seemingly innocent era of the 1950’s, to the turbulent times of the 1960’s. By the 1970’s, the movement was collapsing into an era of hard living, hard rock and hard drugs. But the singer-song writers continued to speak to us, and produce an amazing catalogue of music, with emphasis on acoustic melody and harmony, and lyrics that were simple and spoke to the heart. From John Denver’s soaring tenor lines to James Taylor’s rhythmic licks, each performer brought their own unique style and vision of the world. I am happy to see my son, who is a Generation X child, embrace the music and enjoy those great, timeless songs from the 1970’s. Once such song, speaking of Gordon Lightfoot, was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”, a lengthy tale of a cargo ship that sunk during a storm off of Lake Superior in 1975. The melody is haunting, and the story that Lightfoot weaves with his baritone voice keeps the listener riveted. It became a huge, world-wide success for Lightfoot, and really shed light on an otherwise distant news story. I am sure that for the crew’s families left behind, it was a wonderful way to express their loss and grief and share with the world their loved-ones tragic tale. Without it, perhaps few but those in that industry would have known of the event. Such is the power of music.
As I heard the story of the Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to other tragic tales, such as the Titanic. In fact, the Fitz (as she was known) was also dubbed, Titanic of the Great Lakes ! But more than that, I compared her voyage, as I did with the original Titanic, to the seeming “successes” of man. Here were ships (in both cases) that was the pride of their fleet, the best that man could offer. They had unsurpassed luxury for their crew and passengers, top of the line equipment and current technology, and an attitude that dominated man’s greatest accomplishments and success: “full steam ahead!” And, like many of man’s endeavors, the over-confidence of industry over common-sense ends in tragedy with mankind scratching their proverbial heads in wonder, “what just happened?” And perhaps it is more than a lack of common sense, maybe it is putting trust in the flesh, and not a higher power and admitting we aren’t as clever as we think. After all, the inspiration for all of our accomplishments comes from somewhere, or someone greater than ourselves. When man realizes that simple truth, things turn out a bit different.
As I explored the tragedy of the Fitzgerald, I was surprised to find one theory as to her demise. She was a huge ship, 730 feet in length, 75 feet wide, and 39 feet tall. She could carry 26,000 long tons. And she was a record-breaking workhorse, often beating her own milestones. She logged an estimated 748 round trips on the Great Lakes and covered more than a million miles, a distance “roughly equivalent to 44 trips around the world.” In July of 1977, the USCG Marine Casualty Report suggested that the accident was caused by ineffective hatch closures. The report concluded that these devices failed to prevent waves from inundating the cargo hold. The flooding occurred gradually and probably imperceptibly throughout the final day, finally resulting in a fatal loss of buoyancy and stability. As a result, the Fitzgerald plummeted to the bottom without warning. Wow. What a metaphor for mankind. A common adage today is, “don’t sweat the small stuff”. It’s ok to allow gay marriage, it’s just a small minority. Or, it’s ok to legalize marijuana, it only has a small effect. Or, it’s ok to add a little sex to prime time TV, we’re all adults. But allowing small leaks in our culture, or personal lives, to go unnoticed, or worse not caring, than eventually it over takes us, floods us and we are drowning.
Thank you Gordon Lightfoot for taking on this tragic tale and giving us a great song, and for making me think. After all, that was the gift of the singer songwriter, making us think and motivating us through the magic of music.