Singing history: Study says folk songs preserve memories of Great Lakes shipwrecks
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee,” singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote of Lake Superior. “The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead.”
Her dead includes the 29-member crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, victims of a vicious storm that sank the doomed freighter on route from Superior, Wisconsin, to a steel mill near Detroit in November 1975.
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’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
Lightfoot’s musical homage to the disaster a year later became an international hit, making the Edmund Fitzgerald, lost near Whitefish Point, the best-known shipwreck in Great Lakes history.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” also provides evidence of what researchers at Michigan Technological University and the nonprofit Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management in Leslie say: “The relationship between shipwrecks and folk tradition, as represented in folk music, has served to preserve memory of the events.”
Famous as it is now, the Edmund Fitzgerald is by no means the only vessel lost by collision, storm or fire on the Great Lakes. That toll is more than 6,000, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie.
Few others have spawned lasting musical memorials and “served to preserve memory of the events,” as researchers Misty Jackson and Kenneth Vrana wrote in a study of memory, preservation and the folk music tradition of Great Lakes shipwrecks. It appeared in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology.
The study focuses on songs about the Edmund Fitzgerald and three other well-known wrecks:
– The Lady Elgin, a side-wheel 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 of the day, inspired the song “Lost on the Lady Elgin” the same year.
– The Eastland, a twin-screw steamer overloaded with more than 2,600 passengers and crew, capsized in 1915 while docked on the Chicago River. Seventy-one years later, a song titled “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 1912 blizzard and ice storm. Seventeen crew died, and decades later it became musically memorialized as “the Christmas ship.”
The researchers selected those disasters because they attracted press attention, drew national and even international attention and inspired folk songs.
To assess how folk music may influence public knowledge of shipwrecks and attitudes toward preserving them, the study surveyed tourists at the Tall Ship Celebration in Bay City and members of the Ten Pound Fiddle, a folk music organization in East Lansing.
The survey found that exposure to traditional maritime music may influence listeners to support shipwreck preservation.
Hstoric preservationists may be able to use the survey results as part of efforts to prevent illegal looting of shipwrecks and to widen public awareness of maritime cultural resources, it said.
“It is our position that folk music and other forms of popular media enhance the awareness and memory of Great Lakes maritime casualties,” it said.
Study coauthor Jackson, the president of the Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management, said, “Shipwrecks are sort of time capsules,” she said. “It’s a kind of step back in the past. You can see an old house driving the street but you don’t see a ship every day.”
She said, “It kind of belongs to all of us. If it’s down there, why shouldn’t we preserve it?”
And unlike shipwrecks buffeted by currents in the ocean, some in the Great Lakes rest on the lake bottom with their masts still sticking up, she said. “That’s intriguing – if it didn’t break up, that glimpse of something from the past is just sitting there. You can explore. It’s not off limits.”
Illinois folk musician Lee Murdock, who specializes in songs of the Great Lakes, said people are drawn to maritime songs, partly because “sailors historically had this culture of their own. The seafaring existence is so substantially different from what you find on land.”
Murdock has composed many shipwreck songs, including “The Christmas Ship” about the Rouse Simmons, and he’s found interest in Great Lakes shipwrecks among audiences as distant as California and Texas.
“You can get some of the inspiration in what is driving the interest in these shipwrecks – the connection with people out there and dealing with that. The mortality of existence on open waters,” he said. “That speaks to people across all different walks of life.”
The study said, “Electronic media have undoubtedly enlarged awareness and memory by making historical songs, stories, images and book and video productions more readily available to the public.” Sources including streaming services like Pandora, folk music shows on public radio and computer games.
“How long is an event remembered or relevant? Folk music from hundreds of years past is still heard today, along with new compositions about Great Lakes tragedies,” it said.