Folk Songs Preserve Memories of Great Lakes Shipwrecks
By Eric Freeman
Capital News Service
“Legend lives from the Chippewas to the great lake they called Gitche Gumee,” Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote of Lake Superior. “The lake, they say, never gives up its dead.”
Its dead include the 29-member crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, victims of a severe storm that sank the doomed freighter en route from Superior, Wisconsin, to a steel mill near Detroit in November 1975.
The wind in the wires made a storybook sound
And a wave washed over the railing
And every man knew, so did the captain
It was the November witch who came to steal
Dawn came late and breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came to lash
Lightfoot’s musical tribute to the disaster a year later became an international hit, making the Edmund Fitzgerald, lost near Whitefish Point, the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” also provides evidence for what researchers from Michigan Technological University and the Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management in Leslie, Michigan say: “The relationship between wrecks and folk lore, as represented in folk music, served to preserve the memory of events.
As famous as she is today, the Edmund Fitzgerald is by no means the only ship lost to collision, storm or fire on the Great Lakes. That toll stands at more than 6,000, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Mary, Michigan.
Few others have spawned lasting musical memorials and “served to preserve the memory of events,” as scholars Misty Jackson and Kenneth Vrana wrote in a study of memory, preservation, and tradition in folk music from the Great Lakes wrecks. It appeared in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology.
The study focuses on songs about the Edmund Fitzgerald and three other well-known shipwrecks:
- The Lady Elgin, a sidewheel steamer that sank in an 1860 collision in Lake Michigan near Chicago, taking with it at least 380 passengers and crew. The disaster, widely reported in newspapers at the time, inspired the song “Lost on the Lady Elgin” that same year.
- The Eastland, a twin-screw steamer overloaded with more than 2,600 passengers and crew, capsized in 1915 while moored on the Chicago River. Seventy-one years later, a song called “The Eastland” paid tribute to its 844 victims.
- The Rouse Simmons, a three-masted schooner, was carrying thousands of Christmas trees from the Upper Peninsula to Chicago when it sank in Lake Michigan during a blizzard and ice storm in 1912. seven crew members died, and decades later it became musically commemorated as “the Christmas Ship”.
Researchers have selected these disasters because they have garnered press attention, garnered national and even international attention, and inspired folk songs.
To assess how folk music can influence public knowledge of shipwrecks and attitudes toward their preservation, the study interviewed tourists at the Tall Ship Celebration in Bay City, Michigan, and members of Ten Pound Fiddle, a music organization folk in East Lansing.
The survey found that exposure to traditional maritime music can inspire listeners to support the preservation of shipwrecks.
Historic curators could use the survey results as part of efforts to prevent illegal looting of shipwrecks and raise awareness of maritime cultural resources, he said.
“Our position is that folk music and other forms of popular media enhance awareness and memory of Great Lakes maritime casualties,” he said.
Study co-author Jackson, president of the Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management, said: “Shipwrecks are kind of time capsules,” she said. “It’s kind of a throwback. You can see an old house driving down the street but you don’t see a boat every day.
She said, “It belongs to all of us. If it’s there, why shouldn’t we preserve it? »
And unlike shipwrecks tossed about by currents in the ocean, some of the Great Lakes lie on the lake bottom with their masts still erect, she said. “It’s intriguing – if it hasn’t broken, this glimpse of something from the past is right there. You can explore. It’s not off limits.”
Illinois folk musician Lee Murdock, who specializes in Great Lakes songs, said people were drawn to maritime songs, in part because “sailors historically had this culture of their own. Life at sea is so different from what you find on land.
Murdock composed many songs about shipwrecks, including “The Christmas Ship” about the Rouse Simmons, and he spoke about Great Lakes shipwrecks to audiences as far afield as California and Texas.
“You can take inspiration from what sparks interest in these wrecks – connecting with the people there and dealing with that. The mortality of existence in the open waters,” he said. speaks to people from all walks of life.”
The study said, “Electronic media has undoubtedly expanded awareness and memory by making historic songs, stories, images, and book and video productions more readily accessible to the public.” Sources including streaming services like Pandora, folk music shows on public radio, and computer games.
“How long is an event memorized or relevant? Folk music from hundreds of years past is still heard today, along with new compositions about the tragedies of the Great Lakes,” he said.