Gordon Lightfoot’s Don Quixote

cover art for Don QuixoteGordon Lightfoot and I go back quite a ways. Though he cut his first album in 1966 and quickly became the top folk singer in Canada, his first hit in the U.S. was the single “If You Could Read My Mind” in 1970, which is when I became aware of him. I never bought the single, but I played it on the jukebox at the burger joint across the street from my high school during the 1970-71 school year. He moved even more strongly onto my radar the next year because my older brother’s girlfriend’s roommate was a huge fan. She introduced me to his earlier albums, 1970’s Sit Down, Young Stranger (which was renamed by Warner in the U.S. for that “If You Could Read My Mind” single), and 1971’s Summer Side of Life, both of which have some absolute classic songs. So in 1972 when a copy of Don Quixote showed up at the drugstore where I worked as a stockboy, I bought it. I probably listened to it nearly exclusively for several weeks, and to this day as we near its 50th anniversary I can still sing along with every song and even sing most of them without the record going. It’s one of the classic albums of the era that I play most often even today.

At 11 tracks and 41 minutes, it’s short by today’s standards. I’m glad they haven’t seen fit to release some special anniversary version padded with outtakes and extra tracks, because these 11 songs fit together quite perfectly, in a strong sequence. (I have it on vinyl and CD but am streaming it on Spotify as I write this. For some reason they changed the sequence of side 2, putting “Beautiful” at the end, which doesn’t work at all.)

The streaming version obviously has been digitized and done well, but I don’t believe this is any kind of remixed or remastered version, and the mix and other sound matters are impeccable. I lay that to the influence of producer Lenny Waronker, who you should read about on Wikipedia. The key personnel in the band remain guitarist Red Shea, bassist Rick Haynes (who replaced longtime Lightfoot sideman John Stockfish around the time the live Sunday Concert album was recorded), and Lightfoot himself on six- and 12-string acoustics. This time out they added Terry Clements on lead acoustic and Shea played some specialty instruments: a classical guitar, a dobro, and a high-strung or Nashville strung guitar. (An uncredited Ry Cooder plays mandolin on a track or two.)

The album opens strongly with the title song, which I have to say I find just as inspirational today as I did when I was an idealistic 16-year-old. For the first verse it’s just two fingerpicked acoustics behind his strong clean vocal, then the bass and some hambone-style percussion enter – a stripped down arrangement for this poetic tale that to me uses Quixote as a stand-in for the folk singer himself, shouting his message “across the ocean to the shore, til he can shout no more.”

“Christian Island” is a slight but heartfelt and pleasant song, the third nautical song he recorded among many more to come. Just three acoustics on the first verse before Haynes’ bass enters, and you can really pick out Shea’s high-strung guitar in the left channel. Swelling chords from what sounds like an accordion or harmonium give a subtle nautical flavor.

I’ve always loved the jaunty “Alberta Bound,” to me just a perfect Canadian folk song, and there’s Ry with his mandolin among the several layers of guitars, including Shea on dobro. There’s some more of that ham-bone percussion, too.

The string section, arranged by Nick DeCaro, make their first apprearance on the tender “Looking At The Rain.” Haynes and his bass shine on this one; the string arrangement almost seems built around his bass line. The song is on a common theme for Lightfoot around this time, the pain of relationship difficulties for a musician who’s on the road for months at a time. Ditto the next track, the more upbeat “Ordinary Man.” The two seem the dark and light sides of the same coin.

And as I wander to the cities and the towns
I get so lonesome knowing you could be around
And when the show is over there’s a Holiday motel
Another empty bottle and another tale to tell.

The first side finishes strongly with what’s long been one of my favorite songs, “Brave Mountaineers,” a sunny, nostalgic country folk song, looking back on an idyllic rural childhood. Where Gord hummed the outro verse on “Christian Island,” here he jauntily whistles down that country road into the sunset. An all-round performer. I do have to say Shea’s dobro isn’t particularly strong, possibly my only criticism of anything on this record other than the unnecessary string arrangements.

The second side opens differently, with a difficult song, “Ode To Big Blue.” The has a bit of a nautical feel to it but its modal setting more echoes the depths of the sea and its mysteries. It’s an environmental anthem, subtle in Lightfoot’s way, a song that tries to get the listener to feel the majesty of the largest creature ever to have lived on this planet and the peril it was in from the greed of men. Haynes’ bass lines speak to me of the deep sad song of the whales facing extinction.

Next up is “Second Cup Of Coffee,” which to me should have been the single from this album. It has a lilting upbeat melody (which belies its rather downbeat subject matter) that’s catchy as hell, a simple arrangement of acoustic guitars and bass. The single instead was the next song, “Beautiful,” which sounds to me like a bit of a retread of “If You Could Read My Mind.” Pity nobody asked me about which song was the better single material. “Beautiful” has a substantial string arrangement, again echoing the earlier hit. If I skip a track it’s this one, partly because of over-saturation from radio play and partly because of its easy listening vibe.

Until I was writing this review I didn’t know that “On Susan’s Floor” was the only one not composed by Lightfoot. This one’s by Nashville songwriters Shel Silverstein and Vince Matthews, and it was the first of several versions recorded over the years by various singers. It’s about Sue Brewer, who was named an honorary member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990 for all of the ways she benefitted musicians and music there during her lifetime. Lightfoot met Matthews while he was recording Summer Side of Life in Nashville in early 1971. Session musicians on that album included several members of Nashville’s A Team.

The album wraps stirringly with a six-minute song, one of Gord’s longest barring “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” “The Patriot’s Dream” is also unusual in its directness as an anti-war song. It combines the two types of Lightfoot songs quite well, with the opening and closing sections in a jaunty, upbeat shuffling march, as he paints a picture of boys going off to war full of dreams of heroism; in the middle it slows into a darker and more serious arrangement as he sketches the stories of the young women whose men won’t be coming home; and finally his indictment of an old man – politician, or captain of industry or business who smiles “a wicked smile” that makes me think anachronistically of former vice president Dick Cheney. “I’d like to say I’m sorry for the sinful deeds I’ve done. But let me first remind you, I’m a patriotic son.” Sounds familiar, no?

Lightfoot’s follow-up album Old Dan’s Records, though another No. 1 in Canada barely registered in the U.S., but after that he took off. Sundown topped the U.S. and Canadian charts and was quite popular in Australia; Cold on the Shoulder produced the hit single “Rainy Day People,” which topped the Easy Listening chart. Key band members remained but musicians now included L.A. session players. He got too pop for my tastes. But for a brief shining moment when I was at the peak age to fall in love with a record that would stick with me forever, Gordon Lightfoot hit a very sweet spot with Don Quixote.

(Warner/Reprise, 1972)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

More Posts