I've been thinking about something that slightly escapes my grasp. Music, movies, books and other forms of art are supposed to make us happy. Allegedly, they serve as diversions that take us away from the parts of our life we don't want to think about so much.
Why is it, then, that we are drawn to art that makes us sad? My wife will sometimes say she watched a sad movie she's seen 100 times "because I needed a good cry."
I can't tell you the last time I decided to cry. I'm not such an über-male as to claim I never cry. It is needed sometimes. It's cleansing. It's healthy. But I let a good cry come when nature intends it.
At the same time, I'm not totally immune to this kind of thinking. For all the songs I love in all kinds of genres, one I always return to (and which has to be in my top five all time) is Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
I won't rehash the details of the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Anyone who needs a refresher can visit here.
So, what makes me happy about the story of 26 men meeting their icy graves at the bottom of Lake Superior? It's certainly not the plot.
But pinpointing exactly why I like a song is difficult. There's something about the guitar sound -- that the riff completely rocks without ever trying to. There's something about the sound of Lightfoot's Canadian accent. There's the fact that I have a halfway decent impression of Lightfoot
I think what really gets me, though, is that the song isn't just about sounds and a witty hook. It makes me think. No other piece of popular music has led me to do more independent study of a subject. No other piece of music has gotten me to watch so many History Channel specials.
Even more importantly, it makes me feel. I may not cry when I listen to this song, but I feel the pain of it deeply when I hear the sequence "All that remains are the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters." Takes my breath away every time.
Off the top of my head, the only other two songs with lines like that are "Amazing Grace" and "O Holy Night." That puts Lightfoot's song in some rarified spiritual air.
As of Tuesday, it has been 34 years since those 26 men met their untimely deaths.
That's what may make "Edmund Fitzgerald" most amazing of all; the song has kept the event in our consciousness for more than 30 years. There have been plenty of tragedies since Fitzgerald's sinking, but this song makes us continue to take notice, even as we've forgotten others. We Americans are a pretty distracted and jaded bunch, so any song that has kept us aware of something like this for more than three decades is quite an accomplishment.