On the 40th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, we got to thinking about how much the media has covered this particular event. With 8,000 known wrecks on the Great Lakes alone, why would this wreck be so popular? And why does it seem like our collective knowledge of maritime history starts and ends with the Edmund Fitzgerald?
The best explanation seems to be Gordon Lightfoot and his chart-topping song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
But Chris Gillcrist, head of the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Ohio says he thinks the popularity of this one wreck has had a nice reverse affect. He says some people who hear about the Edmund Fitzgerald through the song start looking into more Great Lakes shipwrecks.
This week on The Green Room we talk about how musicians influence what we know about maritime history. And instead of the Edmund Fitzgerald, we focus on a different wreck.
Lost on the Lady Elgin
Lee Murdock is a musician and storyteller. He’s devoted his musical career to telling Great Lakes stories.
We asked him if he had to pick one shipwreck to write a song about of the thousands out there, which would he pick?
“Probably one of the songs that has touched the heartstrings down through the years the most was not one that I wrote,” Murdock says.
He’s talking about the lament “Lost on the Lady Elgin” written by Henry Clay Work.
The Lady Elgin was an adventure steamer, kind of like a modern-day cruise ship. It was traveling from Chicago to Milwaukee with about 300 passengers on board. And on that particular stormy night of September 7, 1860, the Lady Elgin was struck by a schooner hauling lumber. The ship sank in about 20 minutes off the shore of Winnetka and Willamette near Chicago.
Since Murdock couldn’t write the original song, he did the next best thing.
“I added verses to a song that was a hundred thirty years old to tell the story a little bit more,” he says.
Murdock says the original song Henry Clay Work wrote focused more on the emotions of relatives of those lost in the wreck. He says it felt kind of detached from the events that happened in the story itself. His three verses bring to life those events, particularly acts of heroism.
One of the verses remembers Captain Wilson. He rescued passengers from the water onto the buoyant pilot house that had separated from the body of the steamer. Wilson led the survivors in songs and hymns on the pilot house till dusk when they came in sight of the shoreline. But they didn’t make it. Murdock says they died in the waves and on the rocks near the shore.
Murdock also chose to memorialize Edward Spencer who rescued people from the shore.
“He went out in the surf 16 times,” says Murdock. “Nowadays, you might not think that’s a big deal. But back in those days, you’d tie a rope around your waist, and you’d go out and help these people navigate through the rocks. He did that 16 times! And the last time he was completely and totally spent sitting by the fire that was kept for him. And he kept saying to himself, ‘Have I done my best. Have I done my best.’”
Keeping historical folk music relevant today
It is Murdock’s life’s work to keep these historical, maritime events alive through music. But how does he keep these songs relevant and engaging today?
“People love stories, and people love heroism,” says Murdock. “I believe we are still looking for heroes, and I find in many of these average everyday people —average everyday sailors down through history— heroism. I think it’s the story and the human side of the stories that makes modern audiences relate to the sea and the Great Lakes.”