The Edmund Fitzgerald Is Inspiring Jim Harbaugh And Michigan Football To Achieve “Lake Mindset”
10:12 AM EST on November 16, 2023
The popular culture of the 1970s is almost impossible to parse in retrospect. The people making the movies and music and television of the era were horny and ambitious and earnest, they were ingesting pills and powders whose effects they barely understood and hadn't really thought about, they chased dumb fads and skipped the required reading and sometimes found their way into making something great but more often fired a few million dollars and months of human effort into the old machinery only to watch as a cloudy oblong nubbin of crystalized cocaine and one single roller skate plonked anticlimactically out the other end. This has always been kind of true, I guess, but there was the sense in the '70s of a culture attempting, in its grasping and pill-addled way, to figure out some new stuff as a way of reconciling the collapse of what had briefly seemed like the future.
Even when this was good, it was ugly. You had your desperate characters chasing each other down grim smoggy avenues in huge sedans for reasons that were unclear but transparently not worth the risk to everyone around them; you had variously narcotized and nihilistic forays out towards the edge, in search of something vague and individuated or just answering the call of that void; you had sincere attempts at self-actualization by characters who were not equipped, culturally or emotionally, to either become self-actualized or be sincere. And when it's bad, it's tragic—attempts at evoking something magical or beautiful from a culture realizing that it didn't believe in magic, or beauty.
Gordon Lightfoot's improbable 1976 hit "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" is unmistakably of that moment—a six-and-a-half minute folk song about a freighter full of ore that sank on Lake Superior, with all 29 souls on board, during a storm. Like a striking number of popular songs from that era and no other era that I can think of, it has a self-consciously cinematic narrative and sweep. "It’s a documentarian’s song, when you think about it," Eric Greenberg, a friend of Lightfoot's, told The New York Times back in May, after Lightfoot's death. It was not "boy meets girl, boy breaks up with girl, or come back, or you left me, or whatever," but "a five-, six-, seven-minute story—a factual story, in Gordon’s case, painstakingly checked to make sure that all the facts are right."
It is, in ways that even the phrase "Canadian folk singer" cannot encompass or prepare a listener for, achingly earnest and reverent. It is especially so for a song that was written more or less right after the actual Edmund Fitzgerald sank. It wasn't a song about or even just making use of a widely known tragedy that had assumed some legendary scope or sweep over time to make some point or other so much as it was a song about the news, or just Current Events. I was thinking, listening to it just now, that I would like a de-glossed cover from a band like Arbouretum and it turns out that just such a cover exists, and that I did.
One thing I did not think, in listening to the song or the cover, was that it made me excited to go play football. This is one of many cases in which embattled University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and I are not on the same wavelength.
Harbaugh has said that he used to listen to "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" to get himself in the right competitive headspace back when he was quarterbacking in the NFL. In 2016, Harbaugh described it as his "all-time favorite song ... since grade school" in an interview with Mashable. "I would play it on my way to games when I played for the Bears," he went on. "I had a car, back when they came with the six-disc players. That was one of the discs. Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen—I only had, like, three discs in there."
As with many things about Harbaugh, this is something that seems like it could be a bit and is decidedly not a bit. He used the song as his walk-up music for a media appearance before the 2022 Fiesta Bowl; he tweeted about the wreck on its anniversary in 2015, and 2016, and also in 2017. Harbaugh has been consistent about his position on "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald," and has long been happy to talk about it whenever anyone has asked. "I just like the song," Harbaugh told the Detroit Free Press in 2015. "It tells a story. I've studied the story, and it's a good song, isn't it? I'm not the only one? Gordon Lightfoot. Who doesn't like that song? It's a real toe-tapper." That last bit is just incredibly not true, although it's tough to argue with Harbaugh's assertion that it "really tells a story, some powerful phrases in it, as well."
It is easy to imagine Jim Harbaugh telling his team about this song, as indeed it is easy to imagine Jim Harbaugh telling his team basically anything, or just telling a stranger about this song in any number of Harbaugh-related scenarios—while buying pants at the gas station where he buys his pants; while exercising on a hotel stairclimber in the hours just before dawn; while inexplicably speaking on career day at an elementary school in which none of his children have ever been a student. It is harder to imagine his players listening to Harbaugh when he tells them about it, let alone listening to it, but the ongoing fallout from The Connor Stalions Affair has underlined the extent to which Michigan's players, coaches, and fans really have bought into Jim Harbaugh's singular and benignly deranged way of seeing the world.
This is not necessarily a new thing in college football, but where that discourse has generally been pink or startlingly maroon men from the southeast starting increasingly baroque sentences by saying "as a Christian" in increasingly tremulous tones of indignation and rage, the Michigan conversation is different, if not any less unbalanced. It just happens to involve Harbaugh's coaches crying on live television as they talk about how much they love him, and Michigan law school professors getting so worked up about it that they question whether the law even exists. The idea that Harbaugh's suspension by the Big Ten amounts to unjust persecution of the sort that demands collective vengeance is, finally, pretty normal Football Brain stuff.
Given all that, it is maybe more startling than it is actually surprising that "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" wound up being involved in all this. It is Jim Harbaugh's all-time favorite song, after all, and any story pegged to Jim Harbaugh will eventually and inevitably go in some Intensely Harbaugh directions. After Michigan's excruciating road win against Penn State last week, Wolverines receiver Cornelius Johnson explained why he wore an Edmund Fitzgerald t-shirt on the team's trip to State College.
“I know Coach Harbaugh said he used to listen to that song on the way to the stadium when he played,” Johnson told On3. He went on:
"It might seem weird because it’s not the most hyped-up song, but everyone’s got their routine. It’s a funny song because it does relate to Michigan and that area, Lake Superior and all that. So, it was cool. Just good lyrics in that song. Just a fighting mentality. We’re the lake."
This was not the first time Johnson had worn the t-shirt; in September, Alejandro Zúñiga reported at 247Sports that Johnson had bought it "at last summer’s team visit to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum." (Per Zúñiga's reporting, former Michigan and current 49ers kicker Jake Moody also owns either an Edmund Fitzgerald shirt, or a hat, or both.) It was, however, the first time that Johnson laid out his personal interpretation of the song and its merits. "We're the lake" is an extremely powerful thought just on its own, but as the takeaway from a song that is about a boat that sinks into a lake it is even more so.
It is deeply, deeply Harbaughian in the way it bends everything back toward A Winning Football Mentality, and a sterling example of football brain at work. If getting motivated is the aim, and winning is the ultimate goal, then this is the reading that makes the most sense, or anyway is the most useful. That it is also floridly batshit is immaterial. This is a pragmatic thing, and for Harbaugh's purposes as for Johnson's it is about getting to the most useful lesson. It opens onto a bunch of other unconventional interpretations of one-sided texts—watching Titanic, for instance, and coming away from it saying "Feeling like I'm in my Iceberg Era"—but it is also self-contained. It's hard to know what Gordon Lightfoot found in the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald that moved him to write the song, and it's similarly tough to know what about it struck a chord in Jim Harbaugh, although that last bit is probably more of a Jim Harbaugh issue. But you bring to a work of art whatever you have with you, and you take from it whatever you need. Sometimes you're the shipwreck, and sometimes you're the lake.