Gordon Lightfoot’s Songbook

UnknownIt’s so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day, / and talk about the old towna million miles away.” from Gordon Lightfoot’s  “Did She Mention My Name”

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian institution. He has been awarded the Order of Canada (our highest civilian award). He has garnered Grammy nominations and won Junos. He’s been honored by everyone. Pierre Berton (writer/historian/talk show host) once told him, “you know Gord, you said as much [about the building of the railroad across Canada] in that song as I said in my book.” Berton had written a two volume history of the railroad. A new DVD has just been released of his live show in Reno from last spring. And today he lies in the intensive care unit of the McMaster Medical Centre a quarter of a mile from my office.

I grew up listening to Lightfoot. He’s one of the main reasons I took up the guitar. In 1967, he had just released his second album, The Way I Feel, it was Canada’s centennial year, and he appeared at a 100th birthday party at Hamilton’s new waterfront park. Impressionist Rich Little was the star of the show, Ottawa rock band the Big Town Boys opened, but it was Gordon Lightfoot who nearly caused a riot when he broke a string and said, “Darn guitar! Come and see me after the show and I’ll give it to you!” His gentle songs of love and pastoral scenes, like “Pussywillows, Cat-tails,” calmed us, his historical epics, like “the Canadian Railroad Trilogy” inspired us, and his protest songs, such as “Boss Man,” stirred us. He was our own. His songs were about us, our land and our people. They spoke of the home team, and ice on the river, old men coming home from the forest, and he captured the essence of being Canadian better than we’d ever heard before.

Lightfoot was born in 1938 in Orillia. This is a beautiful town on a lake in Ontario’s vacation center. He was inspired to write his own songs by American folk-singers like Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. After some encouragement from Pete Seeger and Ian & Sylvia he took up the guitar and began appearing in coffeehouses around Toronto. Ian & Sylvia recorded a couple of his tunes and introduced him to their manager, Albert Grossman. Grossman gave one of his songs, “For Lovin’ Me,” to Peter, Paul & Mary and his career was off and running!

A proper retrospective would deal with each of Lightfoot’s albums in turn, but the good people at Warner Archives/Rhino have created such a marvelous compilation in the four-disc Songbook that anyone interested in his career can simply dip into his life-work through this anthology. Released in 1999, Songbook is a model box-set. It comes with a hard cover book, with a wealth of classic photos, and an in depth and sympathetic essay by Nicholas Jennings, all packaged in a hard shell box to keep everything neat and organized.

Songbook follow Lightfoot’s career in chronological order. We see the development of the singer, the songwriter and the sound. Disc One opens with his first 45, a country pop tune called “Remember Me”. It was recorded before he turned himself into a folksinger, and it shows what a good decision that transformation was. One cut from his first album is included: “For Lovin’ Me”. This album forged the classic Lightfoot sound, his own guitar, lead acoustic (played by David Rea) and a bass player. This format was to be the standard Lightfoot instrumentation for years. By the time The Way I Feel arrived in ’67, he had established his touring band. Red Shea on lead guitar and John Stockfish on bass filled out the sound while Gord played rhythm and sang in a steady warm voice with the slightly clipped enunciation that would become a trademark.

The second disc, craftily called Disc Two, begins with “Sit Down Young Stranger”, the original title song of his first Reprise album. With the success of “If You Could Read My Mind” the album title was changed but Lightfoot was on his way. No longer just a folksinger from the great white north he was accepted by everyone. The formula was pretty much the same, but the melodies continued to be strong and hummable, the lyrics romantic and understandable. “The Pony Man” was turned into a children’s book with illustrations following the narrative of the lyric. “Don Quixote”, “Alberta Bound”, “Old Dan’s Records” are among the songs gathered on this disc, each one marked by Lighfoot’s unique stamp.

By the time the tunes on Disc Three were coming out, Lightfoot was becoming an international star. His songs were being covered by Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand. The format on his own records didn’t change. Gord’s guitar, some bass, a sparkling lead guitar and maybe some harmony. Sure Ry Cooder might stop by to add a mandolin or some slide, or another guest star might add a little fiddle or pedal steel but the main attraction was the song and Lightfoot’s delivery. Eager, crisp and clear, you could always understand the words, and the words usually made sense. Rarely did Gord play with the surreal images of Dylan, they were still tales of longing, love and lore. He showed his gift for turning news stories into songs with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” a massive hit that recounted the tragic end of a Lake Superior freighter. The addition of electric guitar and drums made this one all the more powerful. This song showed the same gift he had displayed years earlier with his history of the Canadian railroad. “Sundown,” “Rainy Day People,” “Carefree Highway,” “Dream Street Rose” the songs kept coming. He meditated on a painting by Canadian painter Tom Thomson, and came up with “Canary Yellow Canoe” a previously unreleased rocker totally unlike most of his work except that he lists specific place names where he wants to go tripping in his canoe. It’s a riot!

Lightfoot maintained his ability to express the thoughts and hopes of the Canadian people. He has been so loved in Canada that we virtually took him for granted. On Disc Four Warner Archives/Rhino look at the later years, right up to his latest album A Painter Passing Through which was recorded in Hamilton a couple of miles east of the hospital where he now resides. The songs on Disc Four are not as familiar as those on the earlier three, the radio wasn’t playing much folk music in the ’80s and ’90s but the quality certainly didn’t diminish. Lightfoot was writing songs that reflected his age and experience. Divorced, victim of alcoholism and health problems, Gord pulled no punches in his songwriting. The lyrics were a bit darker, the music moodier. He worked with a new batch of musicians, who stuck with him for years. Guitarist Terry Clements, bass player Rick Haynes and Barry Keane on drums became the Gordon Lightfoot Band. His experimental album with David Foster (East of Midnight, ’87) was not well received but the songs included here demand a reassessment. He returned in ’93 to the small combo sound with Waiting For You, here represented by three songs, and was acclaimed again. In 1998 he co-produced his last album to date with Bob Doige (an associate of Daniel Lanois). Disc Four closes with the title cut.

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian institution. In Canada, we tend not to think about those things. Only after the building is torn down and we drive by vacant lot do we fondly think back and tell our kids about the beautiful walls of ivy, the stately halls, the fine murals and stained glass windows that we loved when we were their age. Lightfoot is sick, no-one will say how sick. It’s being kept quiet out of respect for his family and his friends. FortunatelyWarner Archives/Rhino have provided an early memorial to his talent. A monument of song. I’m hoping he rebounds and tours and records again, but right now I’m sitting here thinking about an old friend and listening to him sing and remembering something Gord’s old pal Joni Mitchell sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

(Warner Archives/Rhino, 1999)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

More Posts