Dozens of students sat scrunched in a hallway as Jason Hammond sang them a history lesson.
“With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.”
The Kenowa Hills High School students chimed in by singing “ooo” to the melody line between verses, as Hammond rendered a faithful version of the Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Released 40 years ago, it famously commemorated the 1975 sinking of the huge freighter in Lake Superior, taking all 29 crew members with it.
Hammond sang the six-minute-plus song to half a dozen classes on Thursday, Nov. 10, the 41st anniversary of the tragic shipwreck. He has done so for the 15 years he’s taught historyat Kenowa Hills. As a musician passionate about the power of song, he puts the classic tune to work as a memorable way to engage students in history.
“I love this song,” said Hammond, who has written plenty of his own. “This is the stuff that kids are going to remember, that they may be inspired by.”
The song inspired him as a boy growing up in northern Michigan, and it stuck with him ever since.
Awed by Big Freighters
He remembers hearing the song in his grade-school classroom in Traverse City, and his teachers talking about the legendary wreck near Whitefish Bay. The tremendous scope of the 729-foot ship – equal to two football fields – impressed him. His family had visited the Soo Locks at Sault St. Marie, and he was fascinated by the immensity of the freighters going through.
“Seeing those was always awesome,” said Hammond, recalling how he’d envision himself working on one of those boats under a starry sky. “To me it would be exhilarating.”
He also was exhilarated by music since picking up the guitar around age 12. He played in high school bands, covering Led Zeppelin and other heavy rockers before becoming enchanted by singer-songwriters such as Bruce Cockburn. He began writing songs as a college student, finding spiritual depth in an acoustic guitar and a well-expressed lyric.
“I was more interested in how does music inform life, or how does music tell a story that’s deeper or worthwhile?” he said. “That became a search for me.”
The search continued after he began his teaching career at Kenowa Hills in 2002-03. He played for six years in the popular pop-rock band The New Midwest, whose 2010 CD “Common Wealth” was named local album of the year by Localspins.com.
Although he left playing professionally in 2012, he relishes the chance to bring his Yamaha guitar into the classroom once a year. Framing the Lightfoot song with discussions of economics and the shipping industry, he says it hits a stronger chord with students than a textbook.
“You get a guitar out, kids are like ‘What’s going on?’ You hook them a little bit,” he said.
‘Not Enough Teachers Do It’
After first hour on Nov. 10, Hammond sang the song for his AP U.S. history class as well as Josh Bouwkamp’s psychology class. Bouwkamp backed him up with a second guitar as students huddled on the floor and read the seven stanzas of lyrics. Next hour he played it for choir students aided by director Reed Bretz, then for more classes throughout the day.
It was the first time AP history student Bailey Gillstrom had heard the song. He found it “quite beautiful.” As someone learning to play guitar himself, he also thought it was an effective way to teach history.
“Not enough teachers do it,” said Bailey, a sophomore. “Music can be a beautiful way to get things through to the human mind — even thick-skulled teenagers,” he added with a laugh.
It seemed to make a similar impression on him as it did the first time Hammond heard it as a young boy. “I know what I got out of it,” the teacher said. “This thing works – leaving a mark.”