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04/15/2013

Gordon Lightfoot hailed a master journalist

Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot is pictured on April 12, 2012. (David Cooper/Toronto Star)

It's fitting that on the tail of a winter that just wouldn't let go, Orillia's own Gordon Lightfoot is winning fresh acclaim as a master journalist for his telling of one of the most tragic winter gales Ontario has known.

The song in question, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," involves 457 of the most powerful journalistic words you will ever read, according to a new line-by-line deconstructon by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

Lightfoot's use of first- and second-level nut grafs and employment of sweep, scope, tension, sensory detail and other writerly devices make the song an outstanding example of narrative journalism, the Nieman Story Board blog contends.

Weighing in as a whopping six-minute sea shanty during the height of the three-minute disco era, the song never had a chance when it was released in November, 1976, on the one-year anniversary of the deadly Lake Superior gale it immortalized.

Except that it shot straight to Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, further evidence, says Nieman, of the sage advice of legendary U.S. journalist/professor Conrad Fink, who said, "Never do that -- unless it works."

Lightfoot's "Fitzgerald" has been covered extensively over the years by a wide range of artists, including Dave Bidini and The Rheostatics. Here, as a refresher, is the Lightfoot original with subtitles.

While it is true that Lightfoot took small liberties with certain facts surrounding the wreck that cost 29 lives, the Toronto songwriter, like any good journalist, has adjusted the lyrics over the years to accommodate new information as it emerges. 

Most recently, Lightfoot changed words in 2010 after Toronto-based father-and-son filmmaking team Mike and Warren Fletcher attained new images of the bottom of the ship that debunked the popular theory the Fitzgerald ran aground during the gale.

 

Mitch Potter is the Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites  

Comments

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Love this guy ... greatest song writer this country ever produced -- in fact one of the best anywhere. True Canadian gem!

I have always maintained that Canadian songwriters are the best lyricists, Gordon Lightfoot being one of the key references

I have seen him in concert a couple of times and since we are the same age it is easy to relate to his music over the years .
Canadian Railroad Trilogy is another masterpiece !
Richard
Nova Scotia

That's a very sad song and is one of my favorites. I am Canadian, but was working in Neenah-Menasha, WI when that tragedy struck. It was all over the news in the morning. I have never forgotten the impact that had on those people who I worked with in those twin cities.
I thought Gordon Lightfoot was from Orillia, or is it that he now lives there.

Fabulous song, fabulous guy who is a national treasure.

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