Gordon Lightfoot died this week, which made me and many others sad. I remember listening to “Sundown” when I was in high school, which got me hooked on him. (The song had just come out. My friend Kathy was listening to Stevie Wonder and Elton John, so we heard a lot of them, too. And my friend Peggy and I were both listening to John Denver as well. Yes, I’m ancient. But I digress.)
One of Lightfoot’s best-known songs was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It was one of the longest popular songs ever played on AM radio. The rhythmic swells of sound mimicked the waves on Lake Superior, and the level tone of his voice perfectly conveyed the sorrowful atmosphere of the story.
I gained even more respect for Lightfoot when, in 2010, he changed some of the lyrics to the song to reflect new evidence about the wreck and the men who went down with the ship. That was classy.
But there’s another shipwreck song by another Canadian singer-songwriter that has probably had even more influence on my life – “The Mary Ellen Carter,” by Stan Rogers, who died in 1983. It’s a folk song that packs a powerful punch.
“The Mary Ellen Carter” is another story-song as well. It’s about a group of men determined to raise a sunken ship from her “sorry grave.” They know that the ship is still worth money if they can raise her, but really, it’s a labor of love. And the chorus says, “Rise again!”
It’s the final verses that really pack a punch, though. It talks about rising from all kinds of wrecks – “No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend/Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again! Though your heart it be broken or life about to end/Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!”
I’ve known the song to be deeply meaningful to any number of people – a woman going through an unexpected divorce, a cancer survivor, and more. When our house was destroyed by a tornado, it buoyed up my husband and me. (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.) Whenever we’re having difficulties, we play the song. Sometimes we just play it when we need encouragement. And we always sing along at top volume. Sometimes we even put it on repeat and listen to it over and over.
The thing about the song is that, though the lyrics talk about all the rigors the sailors go through in trying to raise the ship, the song never says whether they actually accomplish it. In that way, it’s even more a song about hope than one about success. Hope, working together for a common goal, and persevering when everyone thinks you’re a fool for doing so.
I hope you listen to it. I hope it inspires you as much as it does me. Stan Rogers has lots of other songs, some of them humorous (“White Collar Holler”) and others heart-wrenching (“First Christmas Away From Home”) and still others slice-of-life ballads (“Lies,” which makes me and other of my friends cry every time we hear it), plus any number of folk songs.
Both “Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Mary Ellen Carter” are great. Both songwriters are phenomenal. One had a place on radio and the other at folk festivals. But I think they’re both worth a listen. Let me know if you agree.