Tuesday marks 40 years since the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a fierce autumn storm on Lake Superior with the loss of all 29 crew members. The legend of the freighter, the largest ever lost on the Great Lakes, was cemented by an all-time great nautical ballad: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, a chart-topping hit in both Canada and the United States in the fall of 1976.
It was not Lightfoot’s first such memorial. This Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Yarmouth Castle disaster. The steam-powered cruise ship caught fire en route from Miami to Nassau. Poorly maintained, inadequately equipped, the vessel was quickly engulfed; the captain and many of the crew fled, leaving those behind to fend for themselves. 90 people — mostly passengers — perished. Lightfoot’s “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” appeared four years later, on his 1969 live album “Sunday Concert.”
“Ballad of Yarmouth Castle” is, lyrically, the more stylized of the two songs. Inspired by a haunting detail — a low groan that, according to survivors and rescuers, seemed to emanate from the ship before it sank (the result, it is thought, of air leaking through the steam whistle) — Lightfoot casts the Yarmouth Castle itself as protagonist, slowly dying as the passengers, unaware, attend to their entertainments. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by contrast, is told from a stoic distance: Details are dispassionately accounted, the ship’s cook goes down with laconic understatement (“Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”), the water swallows the ship — but, then again, that’s what the water has always done.
But the songs’ kinship is revealed in their use of modal scales, tipping the musical syntax away from familiar diatonic patterns. Especially expressive is how both songs avoid the sturdy affirmation of dominant-to-tonic chord progressions. “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle” shifts between A minor and G major, but in the absence of either key’s dominant — E major or D major, respectively — the listener is left unsure which is the object and which the shadow.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is similar, cast in brighter A major, but with E major again absent; Lightfoot instead circles back by way of, again, G major, displacing the tonality, loosening its footing. The uncertainty subtly, eloquently embodies the unmoored nature of maritime disquiet: the water ever-moving, ever-shifting, beautiful and precarious, those upon it perched between life and death.