leave your inhibitions at the door
Hedonist’s Note – One of my biggest fans, The Sicilian, had suggested this song as a Guilty Pleasure, and I wholeheartedly agree. OK, at least half-heartedly. Knowing she has a passion for the song and the fact that she’s actually, you know, a real journalist, I knew she’d do a better job at it than me. So I invited her to be my very first guest poster. Don’t worry, my Guilty Pleasure well has not gone dry. I’ve got some insanely embarrassing ones coming up. Yes, worse than Sussudio.
Take it away, Sicilian!
Gordon Lightfoot’s the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” meant nothing to me when it came out in 1976. A somber, bushy-haired Canadian folk singer droning on about a downed ship in an endlessly looping melody. It got a lot of radio play, but more approachable Bicentennial Year hits—Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” Black Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music”—were what I listened to as a pre-teen in Ann Arbor. The “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was the kind of song found on the cassette tape mix of a somber, bushy-haired U of M assistant professor who lived in North Campus and dined at Seva, his yellowed toenails poking out of Birkenstocks as he dug into a plate of teriyaki seitan, striking an eerie resemblance to Lightfoot himself:
But just last year I began to appreciate the song. I credit the retro phenomenon—when people, feeling nostalgic, decide something is cool again after ignoring it for decades. On Facebook last fall, a former colleague’s post about it drove dozens of comments: “Today is the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” “I love that song!” “Man I hate that song.” “Is Gitche Gumee Lake Michigan?” “No, it’s Superior! The Chippewa Indians blah blah blah.”
The banter piqued my curiosity enough to research the lyrics, which I only vaguely remembered. That’s when I discovered a new guilty pleasure. The song really is quite lyrical, and even as I acknowledge that, I feel slightly queasy and want to scratch my arms. Did I really just think that? Is it possible for a song to be both cheesy and … beautiful?
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘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 crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
T’was the witch of November come stealin’! Can you hear the Charles Dickens influence? The Irish lilt of James Joyce? Yes, it’s the same uninspired melody over and over, but the melody is only the platform for Lightfoot’s poetry to prance about. (And if you’re making gagging noises now, or mumbling something about purple prose, go “jump in the lake”—this is my guilty pleasure.)
So why is this an opportune time to hijack the Food & Wine Hedonist’s blog? This weekend,Nov. 5-7, we’re driving up to St. Ignace in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for my son’s hockey tournament, not too far from where the ship went down. Asked my husband, “Sure you want to go? They won’t be pouring much 2008 pinot noir up there.” But yes, I want to be with my family. What parent would miss taking turns shouting threats at the kids during the last leg of the five-hour drive, to live four people in a “family suite” at a sagging U.P. hotel decorated circa 1986 while trying not to touch the bedspread? Besides, I can bring my own wine. I also learned the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, featuring Edmund Fitzgerald artifacts, is just 60 miles across the peninsula, close to where the ship sank in Canadian waters.
Then it dawned on me … When the skies of November turn gloomy. When the gales of November came early. T’was the witch of November come stealin’… Oh my goodness, would we be up there for the anniversary of the shipwreck? Quick Google search. Darn, just missing it; the wreck occurred Nov. 10, 1975. Yet another spooky coincidence: November 10 is my son’s birthday. I immediately suggested that he write about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald for his next book report. He asked why, so I started singing the lyrics. (I don’t know why he covered his ears and literally ran from the room … it had to be the looping melody and not my singing, right?)
Meanwhile, we won’t be staying near Giche Gumme (Lake Superior); we’ll be lodging by her sister, Lake Huron. Yet Lightfoot sings of the whole family:
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.
Another cool factoid: Lightfoot recorded this song ONE MONTH after the wreck, in December 1975, releasing it in ‘76. Depending on how you feel about the quality of what he produced, that’s some fast songwriting.
I doubt we’ll make it to the Shipwreck Museum while we’re there—too much fun to be had at a cold ice arena (go team!) and a small hotel pool filled with 20 kids sugared up on leftover Halloween candy. And I hear the lake views from the hotel are sublime. So before we depart, I’ll put my guilty pleasure on my iPod so I can gaze out at the “Lake Huron rolls” as Gordon Lightfoot tells the story of a bad November witch and an unfortunate ship, and I’ll raise my paper cup of 2008 pinot noir to 29 men who lost their lives, while “all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Hedonist: Great job! Thanks for filling-in. Yes, he does look like the classic vegan U of M professor. But I was thinking more along the lines of Alex Trebek or adult film star Joey Silvera.
Yes, this is the only place you’ll find Alex Trebek shirtless and a pornstar not. Here’s a video of Gordon lip-synching …