In early 1971, I wasn’t yet 16, but my good friend Ben had just earned his driver’s license, so I would ride shotgun and locate tunes on the AM radio stations. Among the songs that came up during those times was a lovely, poignant ballad called “If You Could Read My Mind.” The song ached of lost love and regret, told with wonderfully descriptive language and metaphors: “If I could read your mind, love, what a tale your thoughts could tell, /Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstores sell, /When you reach the part where the heartaches come, the hero would be me, but heroes often fail, /And you won’t read that book again
because the ending’s just too hard to take…”
This was my introduction to the musical talents of Gordon Lightfoot and, within a week, I bought the album it came from, “Sit Down Young Stranger,” a pleasing mix of original folk and country tunes played and sung impeccably by Lightfoot with his gifted accompanists (Red Shea on guitar and Rick Haynes on bass). With warm melodies like “Approaching Lavender” and “Minstrel of the Dawn” and a gentle reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby Magee” (before Janis’s version made it her own), the album became glued to my turntable, at least until a newer LP, “Summer Side of Life,” was released a couple months later.
Lightfoot’s rich baritone, compelling acoustic guitar arrangements and, especially, his gorgeous melodies and poetic lyrics made me a big fan, placing him right up there with James Taylor and Cat Stevens in my singer-songwriter rankings. I enjoyed learning his music on guitar, especially “Miguel,” a heartbreaking tale of a man whose love drives him to desperate acts, and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” his epic retelling of the construction of the cross-country railway in the 1880s. All this kicked off a lifelong admiration of his music, including his earlier LPs from the late ’60s as well as future releases in the ’70s and beyond.
So it was with great sadness that I learned of his passing a few days ago at the age of 84. His deft merging of folk traditions with pop and country influences appealed to a broad swath of music lovers in his native Canada as well as in the US and elsewhere, as evidenced by his multiple appearances in the upper echelons of the popular music charts over the years, particularly in the Seventies. The great Bob Dylan has spoken of Lightfoot in glowing terms: “Often when I hear one of Gordon’s songs, I wished I had written it. It’s like I want it to last forever.”
Indeed, they’re in mourning this week all over Canada, where he is considered a national treasure. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it, “We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music, and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape. May his music continue to inspire future generations, and may his legacy live on forever.”
Lightfoot grew up in rural Ontario and showed an early interest in music, singing in barbershop quartets and teaching himself folk guitar. He spent a year studying music composition and orchestration at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles and developed an appreciation for jazz, but he soon returned to Canada and began performing in coffeehouses and clubs in Toronto, becoming an important contributor to that city’s burgeoning folk scene. Inspired by Dylan’s astonishing early work, Lightfoot honed his songwriting skills “to inject some personal identity into my songs,” he noted decades later. “I wrote songs about where I am and where I’m from. I took situations and wrote poems about them.”
He won a contract with United Artists in 1966 and released five albums in four years, offering four dozen original songs, some of which (“Early Morning Rain,” “For Lovin’ Me”) were made famous in cover versions by artists like Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary, Judy Collins and even Dylan himself. His albums sold reasonably well in Canada, and he began a decades-long tradition of performing an annual concert at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall, where he recorded his live LP “Sunday Concert,” which was the first to break into the American charts (albeit at only #143).
Lightfoot’s career really took off when he signed with Warner Brothers/Reprise in 1970 and released “Sit Down Young Stranger.” It took nearly a year, but “If You Could Read My Mind” eventually reached #5 on US pop charts, and the album peaked at #12 here. A quick look at the title song shows how strong Dylan’s influence was on the structure and content of his lyrics: “Now will you try to tell us you been too long at school, /That knowledge is not needed, that power does not rule, /That war is not the answer, that young men should not die, /Sit down, young stranger, I wait for your reply…”
Over the next decade, all his albums peaked in the Top Five in Canada, with a dozen hit singles in the Top 20. In the States, his chart successes were more sporadic but still impressive. I call his 1972 release “Don Quixote” his most underrated album, managing only #42, while its single — “Beautiful,” one of the prettiest love songs ever written — inexplicably stalled at #58. Two years later, though, his 1974 LP “Sundown” and its title song both topped the charts in the US, and “Carefree Highway” from that same album reached #10.
Lightfoot wrote often and thoughtfully about betrayal — his own failings as well as those of his romantic partners — and “Sundown” was merely the most famous: “I can see her lying back in her satin dress, in a room where you do what you don’t confess.” On 1978’s “Endless Wire” album you’ll find “The Circle is Small (I Can See It In Your Eyes),” a powerful indictment of an unfaithful partner: “It’s all right to leave, but not all right to lie, When you come home and you can’t say where you’ve been, /The city where we live might be quite large, but the circle is small, /Why not tell us all, and then all of us will know…” He offers this gut-wrenching scenario in the 1971 minor classic “Talking In Your Sleep”: “I heard you talking in the night, that’s right, yes I heard you call, /Though I could hardly hear the name you spoke, it’s a name I don’t recall, /I heard you softly whisper, I reached out to hold you near me, /Then from your lips there came that secret I was not supposed to know…”
He addressed many topics in his lyrics, from whale hunting (“Ode to Big Blue”) to the 1967 Detroit riots (“Black Day in July”) to the consequences of war (“The Patriot’s Dream”). He was an extraordinarily good story teller as well. “People have seemed to like my songs because they’re so simple, and I’m handy with the turn of the phrase. They’re tunes that move along, which is what I look for in my writing. Forward momentum.”
He spun many yarns (“Cherokee Bend,” “Miguel”), but most famously, he recounted the fateful journey of a Great Lakes ore freighter that sank on Lake Superior in 1975 in the richly detailed epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which became an unlikely #1 hit despite clocking in at a lengthy 6:30. “It was quite an undertaking to do that,” Lightfoot said in a 2014 interview. “I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it. I already had a melody in my mind, from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old.”
His rural roots showed up in the country-inflected songs he included on nearly every album, from “Cotton Jenny” (which Anne Murray took to #11 on US country charts in 1972) to “Brave Mountaineers” with its celebration of simple living (“Born in the country and I like that country way, /Of the uncles and the cousins and the card games they would play…”). Lightfoot often described himself as “a cosmopolitan hick,” which succinctly describes the dichotomy of a man from simple rural beginnings who became world-famous.
He said he was flattered by the number of cover versions of his songs that exist, including ones by Eric Clapton (“Looking at the Rain”), Kenny Rankin (“Pussywillows, Cat-Tails”), Nanci Griffith (“Ten Degrees and Getting Colder”), Poco (“Ribbon of Darkness”), Sarah McLachlan (“Song For a Winter’s Night”) as well as Barbra Streisand (“If You Could Read My Mind”) and Elvis Presley (“Early Morning Rain”). “I never heard a cover of one of my songs that I didn’t like,” Lightfoot said in 2008. “Sure, I heard some strange versions occasionally, but they always seemed to do a good job. I would be amazed that people would enjoy my songs enough to want to record them, and it inspired me and made me want to work harder.”
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Lightfoot just couldn’t let it go when he first heard “The Greatest Love Of All,” written in 1977 by Michael Masser and turned into an international hit in 1985 by Whitney Houston. “The first time I heard it was on an elevator,” he recalled in 2015. “There were about 24 bars of the melody that were really obviously taken from ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ and I noticed it. So we initiated a lawsuit for plagiarism, but three weeks later, I let it go because I understood that it was affecting Whitney Houston, who had an appearance coming up at the Grammys, and the suit wasn’t anything to do with her. So we settled out of court.”
Life threw Lightfoot quite a few curve balls along the way. Because he was an inherently shy man who wasn’t that comfortable with the spotlight, his stage presence was sometimes misinterpreted as arrogance, and he subsequently struggled with alcoholism before getting clean in the mid-1980s. The fact that Lightfoot lived to reach 84 is fairly amazing in light of the serious illnesses he suffered in his later years, from a bout with Bell’s palsy to a stomach aneurism that required multiple surgeries and put him in a coma for six weeks in 2002.
A tracheotomy damaged his vocal cords and made him consider retiring from live performances, but his work ethic wouldn’t permit it. “In the final analysis, the job was what mattered,” he said in 2018. “When I was recuperating, it was good being preoccupied in a very constructive way with a project in the works; one which would carry itself forward, right up through the artwork and editorial, until its ultimate completion.”
That project was “Harmony,” a 2004 LP that proved to be his final album of new material. Nevertheless, he continued performing about 80 concerts a year over the past two decades, gamely offering his hits and a cross-section of his repertoire despite a singing voice that had become a shadow of its former self.
Lightfoot’s pointed references to Canadian locales in his song titles (“Christian Island,” “On Yonge Street,” “Alberta Bound” and, of course, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) forever endeared him to his Canadian audiences and made him something of an ambassador while on tour in other countries. He has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, won numerous Juno awards (Canada’s version of the Grammy) and honorary degrees, and was featured on a postage stamp. As Tom Cochrane, frontman for the Canadian rock band Red Rider, put it, “If there was a Mount Rushmore in Canada, Gordon would be on it.”
Rest In Peace, good sir. To his many fans and my blog readers, we would be well served to follow his advice from his 1976 song, “Race Among the Ruins”: “If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon.”
A wonderful tribute to one the greatest ever. His passing is especially hard because he was in among the top people of that vanishing breed of the 1960-70s period — the singer-songwriter. Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, James (and Livingston) Taylor, Jim Croce, Paul Simon are (or were) unique as performers and artists. Nothing in the last 2 decades even comes close to the beauty and authenticity of their music. You can slide in a couple of rock stars (McCartney, Lennon, Bowie, Prince) in terms of their more folk-ballad originals.
And the great thing about that genre was an equal dose of incredibly talented female artists — Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King (sorry Madonna and Taylor Swift, you don’t count). This was an exclusive club, with membership gained by writing and singing about life experiences. What is perhaps most notable is that each songwriter has a unique and distinctive voice, which further distinguishes their music.
His music was covered by others, but it’s hard to imagine “You Could Read My Mind” sung by anyone other than Gordon Lightfoot. Same with the other artists. Their voices are the primary instrument of their music.
Thanks for posting, Well Done!
Thanks for your kind words, Phil. Lightfoot was indeed a member in good standing of that singer-songwriter genre that provided so many fond memories of the late ’60s/early ’70s. But I would say that there are some very talented singer-songwriters from this decade whose work is worthy of your perusal. Ed Sheeran and Brandi Carlile are two examples. And although I haven’t been much of a Taylor Swift fan, I think her 2020 LP “folklore” is exceptional, much better than her earlier stuff. And then there’s Emily Hackett…
Great tribute to an artist who certainly enhanced the folk soundtrack of my teen years. Fortunate to see him in concert @1999 in a smaller outdoor venue in Salt Lake City. He waved back to me from his tour bus when we saw him near the venue Parking lot before the show.
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Thanks, Steve. Saw him perform at Music Hall in ’71 and at The Front Row in ’81 and ’85, and then at Cain Park in ’93.
A lovely tribute to one of my favourite artists, Bruce. We saw him in concert many times when he made his yearly appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto. You could see how much he loved being there: it was evident in his music, his banter with his band, and how he would talk about the place. We last saw him at a concert he gave in honour of the nurses and doctors who took care of him at McMaster after his stomach rupture and coma. It was a powerful evening of music and gratitude.
When he died, it was followed by massive tributes here in Canada. The CBC had an entire day of tributes and music. It’s hard to see the good ones go, but grateful that they gave us such good poetry and music.
Wonderful piece of writing, Bruce.
Thanks for writing, Susanne. So many of his songs tug at my heartstrings…