Few people ever said an unkind word about Gordon Lightfoot. Bob Dylan called him “a rare talent.” John Prine once walked off stage to hug him. Fellow-Canadian Robbie Robertson described him as a “national treasure” and in his home country, he was a national hero.
Now all in the music world are paying tribute to Lightfoot, the folk-pop singer-songwriter who died of natural causes at a Toronto hospital at the age of 84.
Artists who have covered his work include Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbara Streisand, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and Anne Murray.
Lightfoot had a wonderful baritone voice which he used – along with his distinctive 12-string guitar – to deliver some of folk music’s most beautiful melodies with songs he crafted with poetic vision.
There was something very distinctive about his biggest hits, like “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” And much of it had to do with his lyrical vision.
He said: “I simply write the songs about where I am and where I’m from. I take situations and write poems about them.”
This was evident from the very start. His debut album Lightfoot included a gentle lament “Early Morning Rain” a song which had its roots when he made a sojourn from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1960. He sometimes became homesick and would go to L.A. International Airport to watch aircraft flying into overcast skies. His lyrics were seen as a jet-age take on hobos jumping freight trains to travel home:
This old airport's got me down, it's no earthly good to me And I'm stuck here on the ground as cold and drunk as I can be You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train So, I'd best be on my way in the early morning rain
There were many covers of “Early Morning Rain,” the most popular by Ian and Sylvia which reached #1 on the Canadian charts.
But the cover of this song which gave Lightfoot most pleasure was by Dylan, who included a very soothing version on his 1970 release Self Portrait. "I was totally blown away that he would record one of my songs in the first place," Lightfoot told Mojo. "It helped my career. I'd not had a hit single myself to that point."
“If You Could Read My Mind” marked his transition from folk to pop in 1971 when it reached number five on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song was another inspired by a “situation” – this time the break-up of his first marriage. It would prove to be the most covered of his compositions, with Johnny Cash the biggest name to record it.
One situation he wrote as if it was an historical thesis was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” He composed it after reading a Newsweek article about the sinking of an iron-ore carrier, SS Edmund Fitzgerald, on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, with the loss of all 29 crew members. And the opening lyrics are simply mesmerizing:
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed When the gales of November came early
It was released only a year after the disaster and, as might be expected, the single reached #1 in Canada. It would also top the Cashbox charts in the U.S. Lightfoot considered it his finest work, though it was not his most popular song – that distinction going to his 1974 single “Sundown” which topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
But perhaps the most endearing of all his sad tales was “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder” a song he composed in the early 1970’s. It would see a resurgence in the early 90’s when Nanci Griffith included in her majestic album Other Voices, Other Rooms, which was a tribute to songwriters who had influenced her own writing.
“Ten Degrees …” tells the tale of a road musician trying to hitch a ride from Boulder to Milwaukee to see his dying/dead mother. He laments on a lost love and misspent life as he waits for a ride in the freezing cold. The classic opening provides a wonderful hook for the listener:
He was standin' by the highway With a sign that just said "Mother" When he heard a driver comin' 'Bout a half a mile away Then he held the sign up higher Where no decent soul could miss it It was ten degrees or colder Down by Boulder dam that day
What makes the song instantly appealing is the closing stanza when he goes full circle for sympathy:
Won't you listen to me brother If you ever loved your mother Please pull off on the shoulder If you're goin' Milwaukee way It's ten degrees and getting colder Down by Boulder dam today
Lightfoot released 21 studio albums, many achieving gold and multi-platinum status internationally. His last album Solo was released in March 2020, more than 54 years after his debut album. Less than a month ago, ill health forced him to cancel a schedule of concerts in U.S. and Canada later this year.
Lightfoot received 16 Juno Awards and was nominated for five Grammys. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. In May 2003, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour.
In a tweet, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the folk icon as “one of our greatest singer-songwriters”
He added: “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.”
Perhaps the most lasting tribute came from Dylan whose own folk compositions aligned with Lightfoot in the 1960’s. He once said: “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever."
Maybe the final word should go to the great man himself. In a 2020 documentary, Lightfoot quipped: "I was disturbed by the fact that hardly anybody had a bad word to say about me."
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation