Saturday Single No. 735

The Texas Gal and I took an overnight trip last weekend to the harbor city of Duluth, Minnesota, at the western tip of Lake Superior, and seeing the big lake and its freighters reminded me of a piece I posted here years ago pondering, among other things, the definition of folk song. So, I thought I’d share that – edited somewhat – again today.

A number of years ago, during a driving tour around Lake Superior, the Other Half and I stopped at a maritime museum on an old ship in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at the eastern end of the big lake. We wandered through displays about the shipping industry on the Great Lakes, seeing this old logbook and that old uniform, likely learning more than we had expected but being – at least in my case – curiously unmoved by what we were seeing.

There was nothing there that communicated to me the power and romance of the lakes, especially Superior, a body of water so large that it’s really not a lake but an inland sea.

And then we went back on deck and saw a battered lifeboat. Perhaps thirty feet long and made of thick steel, the boat sat malformed on the deck of the museum ship, twisted and bent, mute testimony to the power of the lake where its parent vessel had plied its trade. The name of the parent ship stenciled onto the lifeboat? The Edmund Fitzgerald.

It’s been almost forty-six years since a November storm sent the Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior. To those of us in the Northland, certainly in the states that share Superior’s shores, the sinking remains vivid in memory, a marker in time. I have a sense, though, that for those from elsewhere in the U.S. (and certainly elsewhere in the world), the boat’s sinking would be a dim memory today were it not for Gordon Lightfoot. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a single taken off his Summertime Dream album in 1976, provides an indelible and haunting reminder of the events of November 10, 1975.

All-Music Guide, in its review of Summertime Dream, notes: “As for ‘Edmund Fitzgerald,’ its continued popularity . . . attests to the power of a well-told tale and a tasty guitar lick.” I think the popularity of the song is more complex than that, however. To me, one of the main reasons for the song’s enduring vitality is that, in 1976, it brought to popular culture, for one of the few times in many years, a true example of folk music.

Folk music, as it’s been defined since about 1965, is music with primarily acoustic instrumentation. (When electric instrumentation is added, one finds folk’s cousin, folk rock.) That’s a pretty sparse and broad definition, but it has to be to bring into the fold of folk music all the performers who have been described since the mid-Sixties as folk artists, as the genre evolved into singer/songwriter music.

A more narrow and purist definition would call folk music only that music that has been passed on via an oral tradition. The practicality of requiring an oral tradition, however, long ago went by the wayside, most likely in 1952 with the release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music on Folkways Records, a collection that brought to multitudes of singers both inspiration and material, according to the testimony of Bob Dylan and many other folkies of the 1960s.

Requiring folk music today to have an oral source rather than a recorded source would mean that any musician who performs, say, “Man of Constant Sorrow” after hearing it on Dylan’s first album or after hearing any of the many other versions of the song released over the past seventy years, is singing a song that is no longer folk music, and that constraint, to me, is silly.

So I think that worrying about the source of the music isn’t the place to look when talking about folk music. I think we’re better off looking at content: What is the song about?

And in much of the music that was considered classic, traditional folk – the music contained in the Smith anthology and more – commemoration of and commentary on the events of the day was central. Cultural memory was preserved in live song in those years before everyone saw the news on CNN and before everyone could listen to the song on a record player or a CD player or an iPod. Answering the question of “What happened when?” is a central part of much classic, traditional folk music.

I think it’s likely that a wide audience truly began to ponder the impact of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald only after hearing Lightfoot’s song. Here in the Northland, the recording was more a reminder than anything. But for both audiences – those who already knew a great deal about the Edmund Fitzgerald and those who learned more about it through the song – Gordon Lightfoot’s song provides a commemoration of the event, and to me, that is the core function of folk music, to provide common memory of the events that form and transform our communities:

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One Response to “Saturday Single No. 735”

  1. jb says:

    I am embarrassingly late getting to this post, but I’m glad to have read it, as I have been thinking about what constitutes folk music, and what its purpose is, for the last few days. I had not considered “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as a folk song but it clearly is. It’s a superb contemporary example of sort of thing that singers have done for literally thousands of years, around the fire, in the lord’s manor hall, in slave cabins, and elsewhere.

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