Monday, February 19, 2007

From the Chippewa on Down: Fisking a Dirge

Cross post from Newcritics...

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes...?” I’ve had that unattributed lyric in my head for over thirty years. Many times I’ve sat down in attempt to scribe a few words for a riff I’ve come up with, and that lyric has found a way to the surface time and time again. I always knew it was someone else’s so I never tossed it out there while collaborating with others. I’d always had a sense that it was a partial bit too. It would still be a mystery if it wasn’t for an archived Rhino podcast of the Lefsetz Letter I tuned into recently that blew the lid off the mystery and all the pieces fell into place as I instantly remembered where I had first heard it and why it stayed with me all these years.

The words come following the denouement of the song. The instruments drop to a sparse hush, the snare drum reverberating in the distance, and then this…

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

These words are of course from just one of the seven verses of the Gordon Lightfoot hit The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald the tale of an American freighter that sank in an early winter gale on Lake Superior in 1975 with twenty-nine crew on board.

I first heard it during one of our family’s long drives to our grandparent’s house in North Carolina sometime in 1976. Five kids, my parents, and a big dog all packed into a green Chevy station wagon that could fall apart at any moment. I was 12 years old. It was late in the evening and my brother and I were stretched out in the back and my head was right up against the mono radio speaker. My dad had the radio on and a DJ spun The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I listened to every word and was filled with such sadness when it was over, especially after my folks told me that the story was true. This song is probably responsible for my life long affinity for dirges.

Wikipedia has this definition, which is a good start, but I stretch it to include the ability to be sung when drunk, and the lack of a definitive chorus. Its melody should memorable enough for listeners to actually want to hear the story being told. While some damn fine dirges have been written all over the world, the Irish seem to have a zest for them having written so many great ones, Arthur MacBride and Foggy Dew being two examples and a couple of my personal favorites (If I didn’t read that Lightfoot was a born and raised Canadian, I’d swear he had Erin blood running through his veins after hearing his Edmund Fitzgerald tale).

The story of Arthur McBride as he and his cousin go for a stroll on a Christmas day and end up crossing paths with a British Sergeant out looking for conscripts…

"But ", says Arthur, "I wouldn't be proud of your clothes
For you've only the lend of them as I suppose
And you dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do you'll be flogged in the morning.
And although that we are single and free
we take great delight in our own company
And we have no desire strange faces to see
Although that your offers are charming
And we have no desire to take your advance
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance
For you would have no scruples for to send us to France
Where we would get shot without warning "

Arthur is clearly not one for serving in the King’s army and his taunts do nothing but anger the sergeant. I’ll let you discover the outcome on your own.

The subject of these songs are often unsung hero’s or soldiers. From Foggy Dew (Check out Sinead O’Connor with the Chieftains for a haunting version of it)…

'Twas down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There are Ireland's lines of marching men in squadrons pass me by
No pipe did hum; no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the angelus bells or the Liffey's swell rang out in the foggy dew

The historical events are foretelling. You can picture it like a scene in a movie. A little girl on her horse going to the market without a care in the world when she comes upon a line of grim-faced soldiers marching to the Easter Uprising of 1916.

Most of the time these songs feature everyday folks like the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Many historical dirges inspire me to do research on the events or individuals being sung about. A good one will put you right in the story. In The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, we’re there watching helplessly in the safety of voyeuristic distance as the crew begins to realize that the storm is going to sink them…

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'.
Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it's been good t'know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

It doesn’t get anymore helpless than that does it? Watching the lights of a ship go out as it sinks to its cold watery grave. No Jack/Rose bullshit here, just twenty-nine men leaving loved ones who are expecting them home in a couple of days. According to a recent Coast Guard review (the wreck was only recently discovered), lake water filled the container area loaded with iron ore pellets which caused the load to shift towards the bow. Once the ship crested a wave, it nose dived 1,100 feet to the bottom of Lake Superior. As Lefsetz remarks in his podcast, the water of Lake Superior is so cold, that even in the heat of whatever summer they get up there, you couldn’t stand ankle deep in its water for more than 30 seconds. As I learned during my last visit out to Lake Tahoe (another deep and cold lake albeit no iron ore laden freighters to be found) that bodies are rarely recovered following a mishap since the cold water at depth prohibits normal decomposition. This macabre reality provides us this opening lyric…

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy

That’s some right ominous shit. The vernacular of the sea is so made for dirges isn't it (sailors refer to their ships and waters in female tense as symbol of undying respect for both)?

All sailors are probably required to know fifty sailing dirges at a minimum and recite them upon command since their occupation provides such a ripe field of material for these tunes of tragedy and heroics. Successfully performing one of these songs is not as easy as one might think. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is simple enough four chord song (B, F sharp minor, A, E), but singing those words without sounding hoaky is a whole other matter entirely. Hell, just remembering all the words is a challenge enough for me which is why these songs I play for myself and my loyal fans only (i.e. my wife and kid).

Dirges rarely if ever end up being a hit in the top 40 sense which makes The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald a rare bird indeed, but if they’re good they live forever whether they be about a tragedy, lost love, war, or some horse race that took place two centuries ago. Often times, they’ll get new lyrics such as the case of Lily of the West and The Banks of the Ponchatrain. They become the way legends get passed down from generation to generation. It’s a pretty solid way to create staying power I’d say.

Heck, here I am writing a blog post about an iron ore boat, one of thousands, which sank in the great lakes three decades ago. I’d call that a hit in my book.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Where's The Outrage?

It was right to rout Bill Frist out of office. Blatant scoundrels like him need not hold prominent posts in any administration. The front pages and blog space dedicated to the investigations played a large part in removing him from influence.

Having said that, I have always held that, despite all our political discourse, no matter how earnest we are about who we support, that nothing really changes all that much. Oh, the outrage over Frist over at My Dirty Life & Times, et al… They were right about him, but how about now?

Not until page seven of today’s paper did I read about Rep. William Jefferson being appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to a Homeland Security post. That’s right folks, the guy with $90K in cash stuffed in his freezer. The guy who’s office was raided by the feds. The very guy who was handed his hat from the Ways and Means Committee. The guy despite it all, was REELECTED by his constituents.

And why is this NOT a front page story? Oh that’s right, fair and balanced. There is no hope. Congratulations Democrats, you're now no better than the Republicans.

Meet the new boss, same as the old f’n boss…

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Much Respect...

You want to hear some great singing? I don't care if I get mocked. Those that do are tone deaf. From an unlikely source check this out...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Operator, Can You Help Me Place This Call... Great Telephone Songs

I've got a new post up over at Newcritics. Go over and add your two cents and give me your favorite telephone songs.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The times they are a changin'...

So Bobby Ross has retired from coaching. That’s a big blow. While Bobby didn’t post a big win/loss record while at Army, he did put the program back on track after total and complete decimation from the Todd Berry/Rich Greenspan reign. Ross showed the cadets what it felt like to win again. All inside and outside reports I’ve got over the last couple of days confirm that the 70 year old coach just ran out of gas. Coach Jim Young, Black Knights coach who took the cadets to multiple winning seasons and bowl games in the 80's including a victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, said during his resignation press conference that winning at Army requires a coach, his staff, and the team to be at 150% ALL the time. I think Bobby found this to be very true in the three years he was at West Point. Nonetheless, I laud Bobby Ross for coming out of retirement to put the program back on it’s feet. All the alumni, fans, and current staff understood that his motivation was largely driven by his desire to serve his country's interests in the best way he could. You surely can’t knock a guy for that at all, especially a 70 year old winner like Bobby Ross.

Army has given the job to Stan Brock who appears to have been a well respected assistant to Ross for the last three years. Here’s the meat and potatoes from the press release:

Brock played 13 seasons with the NFL's New Orleans Saints (1980-92) as an offensive tackle after he was selected in the first round of the 1980 NFL Draft as the 12th overall selection. He was an All-Rookie choice in 1980 and went on to play in 186 games for New Orleans (No. 4 all-time in Saints history). At one point, Brock made 67 consecutive starts and was part of an offensive line that allowed a league-low 15 sacks in 1992. During his last six years in New Orleans (1987-92), the Saints compiled an overall record of 66-32 (.673). Brock was inducted into the Saints' Hall of Fame in 1998.

For long time Army football fans, the real question that immediately comes to mind is: Will the new coach follow in Jim Young’s footsteps and change the offensive scheme from a pro-set to a hybrid option? As the legend goes, after posting a dismal first season record and getting the crap kicked out of them at the Army/Navy game out at The Rose Bowl in California Jim Young was talking to his staff during the lonely plane ride back and just completely conceded that the cadet’s would NEVER run a passing dominated offense with any real success and perhaps he ought to take a look at some of the old option offenses many of his predecessors had run going all the way back to the leather helmet days. From that day on, the wishbone offense was what Army ran and did they ever run it! The cadets went down and tied big ole Tennessee once and BEAT them the next! Bowl games and winning seasons. Man, those were the days. Many other smaller teams have run the option to great success including Air Force, Navy, and Wake Forest. It’s time for Army to go back to The Bone. It may be boring to watch, but all you have to do is watch those big fat defensive linebackers get all winded chasing our little guys back and forth from the long side to the short side to know that it is Army's key to competing in the world of college football factories that is Div. 1A.

Interestingly enough, Stan Brock has announced that he will NOT retain Kevin Ross, Bobby’s son, as offensive coordinator citing the need to, “take the team in another direction”. Maybe this is a sign that the option is coming back West Point. I hope so. Bold move firing the son of the guy who recommended you for the job.

I wish Stan Brock the best of luck and hope that he can take the team to the next level.

Go Army! Beat Navy!


My father, USMA class of 1962, loves crunching data. He's an Army sports loving math geek to the bone and he put this matrix together. It tells the story fairly clearly: