Gordon Lightfoot

TrackAlbum
Early Morning RainGord's Gold
Canadian Railroad TrilogyGord's Gold
If You Could Read My MindSit Down Young Stranger
Summer Side Of LifeSummer Side Of Life
Cotton JennySummer Side Of Life
Christian IslandGord's Gold Vol. 2
SundownSundown
Carefree HighwaySundown
The Wreck Of The Edmund FitzgeraldSummertime Dream
ShadowsShadows

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Gordon Lightfoot photo

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

“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.” Bob Dylan

Like the late great Guy Clark, Gordon Lightfoot ranks among the very best of the ‘craftsmen’ songwriters. Although this term is sometimes used as a means of damning with faint praise, it applies perfectly to Lightfoot’s meticulous and finely honed approach to his craft. Like the very best craftsmen, his best work also sometimes has a deceptive simplicity which conceals the highly developed artistry and skill which lie behind it. Indeed, there are only a handful of other songwriters who can compete with that almost seamless marriage between music and words which Lightfoot achieves in his best work. Throughout his career, Lightfoot has adhered closely to traditional forms in his songwriting. While this has meant that he has never been an especially fashionable artist or one much lauded by hipster critics, it has also meant that there is a timeless quality to his best work. As a result, it remains fresh today in a way which that of many of his more celebrated contemporaries has not.

Lightfoot also resembles Clark in the fact that both men’s writing is firmly grounded in a sense of place. With Clark, that ‘place’ frequently was the semi-rural small town Texas in which he grew up. In a similar way, Lightfoot’s songs frequently refer to the area around the town of Orillia in Ontario, Canada which was his birthplace. There is also a strong historical sense in both men’s work, with many of Lightfoot’s songs reflecting his deep knowledge of, and interest in, Canadian culture and traditions. The fact that he remained living in that country, at a time when many of its best songwriters were moving to the US to pursue their careers, has also meant that he has secured a very special place as an artist with the public there. There are very few songwriters anywhere in the world who have the kind of iconic status which he has in his home country (something which I became very aware when living there in the late 1980s/early 1990s).

Gordon Lightfoot’s musical career began at a very early age, as a boy soprano in his local church. He also frequently sang at local concerts and weddings, before joining a barbershop quartet in high school. This precocious musical ability eventually led to his studying orchestration and musical theory at the Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles. At that point, his primary musical interest lay in jazz, although the need to make a living ultimately meant that he was willing to work in any type of music that offered some kind of remuneration. This need for money eventually led to his working part time as a dancer on a Canadian country music show called “Hoedown”. By that time, the folk musical revival had begun to take hold in Canada, and Lightfoot soon found a new source of inspiration in bands like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio. A real turning point occurred when he saw the Canadian couple, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, perform at a coffee house in the bohemian district of Yorkville in Toronto. Hearing their blend of folk and country influences, Lightfoot has claimed, was “like seeing the light of day” for him. From then on, a similar melding of influences was to lie at the core of his work.

Along with Ian and Sylvia, the other crucial influence on Lightfoot’s early work was Bob Dylan, with whom he was to maintain something of a long-term mutual admiration society. According to Lightfoot, Dylan’s example encouraged him to make his lyrics more personal and, in his early days as a songwriter, there was a distinctively political edge to his writing which also owed something to the younger man’s work. Despite his admiration for Dylan, however, Lightfoot’s writing style remained his own, and the songs continued to be much more linear and narrative based. By this point, Lightfoot had also begun to absorb his influences and was developing a distinctive voice. He was also writing high quality songs, which were being covered by more commercially successful artists like Peter, Paul and Mary. For example, their version of For Lovin’ Me, one of his best early songs, reached the US Top 30 in February 1965. They had been given the song by Albert Grossman, their manager who was then, through his association with Bob Dylan, one of the most powerful figures in the American music business. Grossman had recognised the commercial potential of Lightfoot’s songs early in his career and signed him to his stable of artists earlier in the same year.

Through his connection with Grossman, Lightfoot also secured a recording deal with United Artists, with whom he went on to release five albums between 1966 and 1969. Even at this early stage in his career, he was writing material of a very high calibre indeed and several of these early compositions (such as Ribbon Of Darkness, I’m Not Saying, Did She Mention My Name) came very close to being included here. My first selection, though, is one of his most celebrated songs, Early Morning Rain, which was subsequently covered by a wide range of artists including Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. While the song first appeared on his debut album Lighfoot! in 1966, the version I have chosen here is the one which appeared on the 1975 compilation album, Gord’s Gold. The album included re-recordings of several of the best of his early songs and, unlike most such revisitings of an artist’s previous work, they generally marked an improvement on the original recordings. At that point in his career, Lightfoot had put together a superb backing band and their mutual understanding is a key element in the artistic success of the record. Early Morning Rain itself is particularly notable for the great rolling bass part by Rick Haynes, who had replaced John Stockfish in Lightfoot’s band in 1968.

My next selection, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, was originally written in response to a commission from the Canadian national TV station, CBC, for a song to be broadcast on a special programme marking the country’s centenary which was broadcast on 1st January 1967. Lightfoot’s song describes the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and is one of the finest historical songs from any songwriter in the last half-century. Furthermore, despite the fact that it was a commissioned song, it does not pull any punches in describing the harsh living and working conditions of the navvies who actually built the railway. It also has a complex structure which owed something to The Civil War Trilogy, written by Bob Gibson and Bob Camp and first released in 1963. Despite this debt, however, Lightfoot’s song is a major achievement in its own right and showed his mastery of the long narrative ballad form. Again, in this instance, I have chosen the later version which appeared on Gord’s Gold over the original one, which was on his 1967 album, The Way I Feel.

“I always knew Gordon Lightfoot was a really great songwriter, but his stuff even sounds better and better all the time. It’s just so really good to me. It’s just like that’s what should be in a dictionary, you know, next to a really good contemporary folk song, is a Gordon Lightfoot song.” John Prine

In 1969, Lightfoot moved from United Artists to Reprise and it was with that label that he was to achieve his greatest commercial success. Indeed, this marked the beginning of what might be termed the ‘golden’ phase of his career, when his records managed to combine widespread popular appeal with the maintenance of a high standard of artistic excellence. It also marked the point when Lightfoot began to make sustained inroads into the American charts and this was to continue throughout the 1970s. The starting point for this transformation in his career was the release of If You Could Read My Mind as a single in December 1970. As well as being one of his finest melodies, its lyric also had a candour and frank honesty to it which was to be characteristic of the love songs which he wrote from that point on. His later work often dealt with relationships which were already in trouble and in which themes of infidelity, betrayal and lack of trust were often predominant. In this regard, his lyrics often tended far more towards Leonard Cohen territory than to that of the West Coast MOR-ish songwriters of the early 1970s with whom he was often (wrongly in my opinion) compared at that time. Unlike those songwriters, whose work often tended to a soft-rock/AOR-ish direction, Gordon Lightfoot’s work always remained firmly grounded in the folk and country music traditions from which he had originally emerged.

Because of the success of If You Could Read My Mind, the album on which it appeared (originally titled Sit Down Young Stranger) was reissued as If You Could Read My Mind in 1971. Throughout his career, Lightfoot’s records had always clearly displayed his own impeccable musicianship and he had always surrounded himself with backing musicians of the highest calibre. At this point, however, he began to put together an excellent backing band which was to stay with him for much of the remainder of his career. It included the brilliant Terry Clements (who was to remain in Lightfoot’s band until his death in 2011) on lead guitar, Rick Haynes on bass, Barry Keane on drums. Over time, this band was to develop an enviable tightness and togetherness and a knack for developing deceptively simple yet often intricate arrangements which formed a superbly effective backdrop for Lightfoot’s own consummate skill as a songwriter.

“One of my favourite Canadian songwriters and … absolutely a national treasure.” Robbie Robertson

“… it all had to do with that great singer-songwriter tradition up there (in Canada) and … that all comes back to one guy, Gordon Lightfoot, it all has to come back to Gordon Lightfoot.” Steve Earle

My next selection, Summer Side Of Life, is a classic example of such an arrangement and features yet another brilliant bass part by Haynes. It is also one of the best of Lightfoot’s rare ‘political’ songs, with its clear and subtly expressed anti-war message. Even by his standards, Cotton Jenny is a beautifully crafted song, where the music and lyrics are woven together like an ornate tapestry. It is a superb example of this master songwriter’s command over his craft and for this reason I have included it in this list.

The next choice, Christian Island, first appeared on Lightfoot’s 1972 album Don Quixote. Once again, I’ve chosen the re-recorded version which appears on the compilation album, Gord’s Gold Vol.2, first released in 1988. The new arrangement perfectly complements this great song, which is my favourite from all of his work. The song is also a finely observed celebration of his love of the outdoors and of sailing and of his lifelong enthusiasm for the scenery in his native province of Ontario. In more recent years, this enthusiasm has led him to become involved with the Canadian campaigner, David Suzuki, and he is currently an honorary member of the board of the Foundation which the latter formed to carry his work in environmental and wildlife protection.

In my opinion, Sundown, first released in 1974, is Gordon Lightfoot’s finest album and shows this artist at the peak of his powers. His band had also achieved a level of excellence by this point, which it was never to surpass. I could have included almost any of the songs from it in this list, such is the sustained excellence of the songwriting. In the end, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. The title track, Sundown, brilliantly marries a relaxed and funky country sound with a surprisingly hard-edged and, at times, bitter lyric. It also features some typically understated but brilliantly effective guitar work from Terry Clements. My other choice from the album, the beautifully melodic Carefree Highway, is a slightly more mellow take on a similar seemingly doomed relationship.

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, from Summertime Dream (1976), ranks among the greatest narrative ballads of the past fifty years. Indeed, it has a good claim to being the best and was a further demonstration, if any was needed, of Lightfoot’s skill in using traditional song forms and making them sound both fresh and new. With characteristic generosity, he has also credited Terry Clements’ superb guitar part as being a key factor in the success of the song. Again, this is a brilliantly crafted composition and one which carries on a tradition of ballads about shipwrecks and other natural disasters which goes back centuries. Like all the best such songs, it also has a timeless feel to it and it is possible to see it eventually entering into the tradition and being sung for a long time to come.

My last choice, Shadows, comes from his 1982 album of the same name, which marked the beginning of a period when his commercial appeal began a long-term decline. Despite this, Lightfoot continued to release fine records and he still commanded the loyalty of a sizeable fan base who appreciated quality songwriting and the craftsmanship which he continued to bring to his work. Shadows is a perfect example of both of these traits and is yet another of those great Lighfoot songs where words and music achieve a well-crafted and seemingly effortless balance.

It was a wrench to leave out Cold On The Shoulder, Alberta Bound, Cherokee Bend, Somewhere USA, The Way I Feel (the list goes on) but they’re all on the Spotify playlist!

Although my final choice here comes from 1982, his later albums are all well worth checking out (Harmony, first released in 2004, and recorded after a near-death experience in 2001, is particularly recommended) and he remains a remarkably consistent songwriter.

The pleasure of listening to Lightfoot’s music is similar to that which one gets from drinking a fine wine or a good malt whiskey (“the whiskey of the Highlands” as Gordon himself has described it). One does not go to any of these looking for surprises – what one seeks and what one gets, in all three cases, is consistent, mellow and finely-crafted excellence.

 

 

 

The Gordon Lightfoot Internet Companion

Gordon Lightfoot official facebook

Gordon Lightfoot and Folk Music

Gordon Lightfoot fan site

Bob Dylan inducts Gordon Lightfoot into The Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1986)

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online

Gordon Lightfoot biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Guy Clark
Leonard Cohen
Bob Dylan
Steve Earle
Peter, Paul and Mary
John Prine
Robbie Robertson

TopperPost #548

7 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Sep 2, 2016

    Brilliant selection of opening quote, brilliant introductory para and no way does the rest disappoint. It was my misfortune not to listen too closely to Gordon way back when and to reject him as too close to easy listening. How wrong I was, though maybe I wasn’t the only one – there were other more important people than me at the time who didn’t take him seriously. We were all wrong. In recent years there does seem to have some reappraisal going on. Thankfully. This Toppermost is timely in providing a route in to the superb body of music that Gordon has created.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Sep 3, 2016

    Great list, great article. Thanks.

  3. Richard Warran
    Sep 3, 2016

    Soundtrack of my youth, my uncle was a massive Lightfoot fan along with James Taylor and others. Seeped into my young brain, despite pretending at the time I didn’t like it. I was a new wave indie guitar kid and Canadian and American singer songwriters with big hair and moustaches weren’t cool in my world. It’s only as an adult that I returned to this type of music and now I’m happy to play British Sea Power followed by Gordon Lightfoot. He was and still is an amazing singer and songwriter.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Sep 4, 2016

    Dave, Alex & Richard, many thanks for these comments. Would also recommend the excellent 4cd anthology, Songbook, as probably the best quick(ish) intro to Gordon’s work. Unlike many such compilations, the quality of the songwriting throughout is of the very highest standard…

  5. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Sep 4, 2016

    In 1966-67, we were in our last year of high school in Toronto and Gordon Lightfoot was at Massey Hall (he played as part of a trio). That was a memorable night, not only for his wonderful show, but also because we were able to get backstage after the show as ‘press’ for a school newspaper. It was a night never to be forgotten mainly because of the terrific concert but also because of the person we got to meet.

  6. Colin Duncan
    Sep 6, 2016

    Excellent article, Andrew. Really enjoyed reading it. I was lucky enough to see Gordon a few months ago in Glasgow. Really enjoyed the evening – a great performance by a man approaching eighty. Great band and great songs. The band got into a groove and it was great song after great song. Don’t know all of his songs, but I would need ‘Beautiful’ and ‘For Lovin’ Me’ in my list. Thanks again.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Sep 7, 2016

    Jerry & Colin, many thanks for these comments.
    Jerry – also had the privilege of seeing Gordon play Massey Hall, but that occasion was many years later (March 1990). Another superb night of music, but, unlike you, I didn’t get to meet the great man. Was struck by the incredible connection between him and the audience that night…
    Colin – good to hear he was in such great form in Glasgow. Very hard to reduce the list down to ten and there were many songs – including the ones you mention – which just missed out…

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