PINTS & UNION PORTFOLIO: Edmund Fitzgerald? It’s much, much more than a Porter.


In 1976, when I was 16, the Canadian performer Gordon Lightfoot had a hit song called “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Back then, AM was the default in car radios, and older automotive models didn’t have FM — much less eight-track or cassette decks, unless you went to a place like Village HiFi in Clarksville, bought your own, and self-customized.

AM radio played the hits, over and over, permanently embedding pop songs in one’s brain that might have been tolerable, perhaps even brilliant, had there been a choice not to hear them several hundred times. Lightfoot’s story about a shipwreck was one of them, and despite the repetition, it has stood the test of time quite well.

But it wasn’t really about a shipwreck, because even if the huge freighter named Edmund Fitzgerald certifiably was a ship, up on the Great Lakes they tend to refer to ships as boats.

In 2014, when I was 54, we visited Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin, port cities on opposite sides of the St. Louis River, both of them critical segments of the industrial umbilical cord connecting iron ore mines in northern Minnesota to factories in places like Detroit and Cleveland, with cargoes traveling by boat across the Great Lakes, through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, and eventually to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In the 1990s, when I’d have been around 35, the gang made several trips to Cleveland for the precise purpose of drinking and dining at Great Lakes Brewing Company, which was founded in 1988. At a time when there were relatively few brewpubs in the Midwest, Great Lakes was a yardstick and a beacon of hope.

Many of us adored Porter, and Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter was both heavenly and a rare treat, this being long before we could expect to see any of it in Indiana, where the beery namesake of a long-ago boat wreck might be expected to travel by truck, not water.

It’s all history, and the critical words to me are “long-ago,” because from the time Lightfoot’s hit song lodged in my noggin, I never had a clear idea about exactly how long ago the Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a cataclysmic storm on Lake Superior. From the dirge-like character of the song, I always assumed it was an 1800s-era occurrence.

So it was that earlier in December, at my present advanced age of 58, when we tapped a keg of Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter at Pints&union, I found myself flabbergasted to finally grasp that the freighter went down in 1975 — that Lightfoot’s song back in ’76 was exceedingly topical, and very accurate lyrically.

At the age of 15, I was a regular reader of newspapers and watcher of television news, and still I can’t remember the event itself in November of 1975. It turns out that the first mate’s son was friends with the founders of Great Lakes Brewing Company, and years later the beer was brewed from this place of friendship as tribute to the memory of 29 crew members who lost their lives when the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost.

Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, black as a dark night, has chocolate and coffee notes with a hint of hops on the finish. The smooth year-round beer for Great Lakes Brewing Co. has garnered more than 15 awards and has been cited in numerous beers-not-to-be-missed books. It is a moderate 5.8 percent in alcohol and has 37 International Bitterness Units.

One needs a pint at times like this, because to be obsessive about history is to understand there’ll be occasions when you’re gobsmacked, and simply can’t account for a depth of feeling about an occurrence having nothing to do with your own life apart from delicious liquid poured into a a glass.

I’ll be buying a second keg of Edmund Fitzgerald to take us through until the expected arrival of Fuller’s London Porter in January. What I’d ask of Pints&union customers is when you drink a pint of Edmund Fitzgerald, kindly spare a few seconds to reflect on the tragedy of these 29 men who died not so much because they were heroes pursuing some lofty, noble cause, but simply while doing their everyday jobs.

For those wanting to learn more, these two documentaries are of help. The first includes re-enactment scenes, which aren’t my preference in such films, but they’re relatively brief. The second film is shorter and more recent. Taken together, the two videos provide a solid overview.

A variety of factors probably contributed to the Edmund Fitzgerald’s demise, and they are summarized here.

What sank the Edmund Fitzgerald? 6 theories on what caused the shipwreck, by Garret Ellison (MLive)

Nobody really knows what caused the Edmond Fitzgerald to sink, but that sure hasn’t stopped people from trying to solve the mystery.

Turning back to Gordon Lightfoot’s song …

In late November of 1975, Lightfoot read a Newsweek magazine article about the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank on November 10, 1975, on Lake Superior during a severe storm with the loss of all 29 crew members. The lyrics in his song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, released the following year, were substantially based on facts in the article. It reached number two on the United States Billboard chart and was a number one hit in Canada. Lightfoot appeared at several 25th anniversary memorial services of the sinking, and continues personal contact with the family members of the men who perished in the Edmund Fitzgerald.

 … and finally, this.

Gordon Lightfoot explains why he wrote ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’, by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk (MLive)

 … “I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind, and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old. I think it was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music. That’s where the melody comes from, from an old Irish folk song.”

An article in Newsweek magazine two weeks after the disaster was the biggest inspiration for Lightfoot to complete the lyrics to go with the melody, which morphed into the greatest “story song” of his career — a song he considers one of his more significant contributions to music.