One could argue that if the only thing Gordon Lightfoot had ever written was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” his place in music history would still be set.
He wrote other songs that have become standards, of course, and today at 72, he is still touring and drawing crowds of fans who want to hear him sing “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown” and dozens of others.
He will return to Chattanooga on Wednesday for a show at the Tivoli.
Lightfoot has been writing and performing primarily as a folk singer since the early ’60s, though he has done cover songs and some country music in his career.
He’s also written other songs about shipwrecks, but “The Wreck,” as he refers to it, is his most memorable and best, he believes.
“It’s a wonderful song to play,” he said last week from his home in Canada. “The people just love to hear it, and we really try to nail it for everything it’s worth. It takes a few ridges off the fingerpads, but it’s worth it.”
Lightfoot was drawn to the story immediately upon the ship’s sinking on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975. All 29 crew members went down with the bulk freighter. When a Newsweek story about the wreck led with the line “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee never gives up her dead, ” the beginnings of a song formed in his mind.
He said he had one main goal when he set out to write it.
If You Go
What: Gordon Lightfoot in concert.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
Admission: $39.50 to $54.50
“I wanted it to be right,” he said. “I’d written other songs about shipwrecks — ‘The Ballad of Yarmouth Castle’ — and in retrospect, they weren’t altogether right. I got all the newspaper articles, and I wanted to make sure I had everything in order. Chronological order.”
The exact cause of the sinking, whether it was hatches damaged by the strong waves or human error, has been debated over the years, and Lightfoot changed one line of the song last year to reflect the more recent wave-damage ruling.
Lightfoot said he felt an obligation to the surviving family members to be accurate and that he is still very much connected to those family members.
He keeps in contact with surviving wives, and on the occasions when a request is made to use the song in part or whole for projects such as movies, he consults with them first.
“I’m glad they love the song,” he said. “I would hate if they didn’t.”
Lightfoot said he does about 14 shows a year these days and does little if any writing.
“Now, it’s mostly family,” he said.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...