Music to Write Realmgard to: Ghosts of Cape Horn

[Whistles Jauntily]

Gordon Lightfoot is an institution and an iconic in Canadian music and has been for long enough that I’m surprised in a way to learn that — as of this writing, least — he’s only 84.

A gourd.
Not, of course, to be confused with
Gourd-on Lightfoot…
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

Now, given that Gord has released 19 studio albums, 3 live albums, 16 greatest hits compilations (and, implicitly, has had a long enough career to be able to put together 16 greatest hits albums), and 46 singles, I have a lot of songs to choose form here.

I figured I’d go with the most apropos song for Realmgard.

I refer, of course of his song about famous nautical disasters.

N-no. Not that song about a famous nautical disasters

Notably, the actual wreck of the actual Edmund Fitzgerald isn’t some, long-ago, far-off folk story from some half-remembered legendary period.

It happened in 1975.

Despite probably being Gordon Lightfoot’s most famous song and reappearing fairly frequently on his subsequent greatest hits albums, he hadn’t actually written the song yet when he put out his first set of greatest hits, because the Edmund Fitzgerald hadn’t sunk yet — the album’s release and the ship’s sinking both occurred November 1975 and he released the song in 76.

All of which is to say, I’m going for the pirate-adjacent with Gord’s lesser-known shipwreck ballad, Ghosts of Cape Horn.

Apparently written for a documentary movie of the same name, first performed for a PBS live show in 1979, released on the 1980 album Dream Street Rose (FYI: by 1980, Gord had already put out 14 albums), Ghosts of Cape Horn is a surprisingly jaunty tune for a song about one of the most notoriously dangerous stretches of ocean in the world.

There’s a lot of catchy whistling, for one thing.

On the other hand, the lyrics go like this:

See them all in sad repair, demons dance everywhere
Southern gales, tattered sails and none to tell the tale.”

Lyrics (and chords) here.

To summarise briefly, Cape Horn is the most southerly point in the Americas at the very southern extremity of Chile.

To put that geography in context, the province where Cape Horn is located is called “Antártica Chilena Province” — 650 km (about 400 miles) from the Antarctic continent, slightly more than the distance between Buffalo and New York City.

And if there’s one thing the Antarctic is known for, it’s good weather…

Before the opening of the Panama Canal, the quickest way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa was to go all the way around South America, hence going past Cape Horn, hence “rounding the Horn.”

And, again if there’s one thing the Antarctic is known for, it’s good weather, so rounding the Horn was infamously dangerous (and still is — it’s not longer necessary thanks to the Panama Canal, but remains popular with yacht racers and other recreational sailors): huge waves, strong winds, rocky coasts, and icebergs.

And, of course, once your boat sinks and you’re in the water, there’s all of the above, plus water that’s cold enough to kill you basically on contact.

Again, because Godron Lightfoot is so prolific, I had some choice for which version of the song to post, I decided to go with the PBS live performance, since he does a little preamble that sets the stage for the song:

The official Music to Write Realmgard to playlist has been updated to include this latest entry:

Also, check out this week’s chapter here:

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