Acoustic Music, Rest in Peace, Saturday Soundtrack
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Gordon Lightfoot, R.I.P.

Canadian folksinger and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot — another voice from my 20s and 30s — passed away on May 1st. I first heard the news from Walter Tunis who writes The Musical Box, an informative and delightful WordPress newsletter with a decidedly personal perspective on music and musicians he has enjoyed through the years. Tunis’s opening paragraph following Lightfoot’s death is a good place to start this tribute.

He sang about hitchhikers and loners, railroads and highways, shipwrecks and heart strings. In a career than spanned over 60 years, Gordon Lightfoot gave voice to some of the most remarkable story-songs ever to hit America from the Great White North. While the subject matter of his compositions regularly shifted, his allegiance to the folk inspirations that took hold as a youth in his native Ontario was never broken. A Lightfoot song was as light as a feather but solid as oak.

Lightfoot had a warm baritone voice that welcomed the listener into the song. The subjects might change, but the sound stayed remarkable consistent: rich and mellow.

The singer described Early Morning Rain as his “first good song” and the one that got him started in the music business after it was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Not surprisingly, it also resonated with the editorial cartoonist for the Montreal Gazette.

If You Could Read My Mind showcases Lightfoot’s storytelling craft, beginning with those memorable first two lines:

If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old time movie
‘Bout a ghost from a wishing well

Written to someone he once loved but is now losing, the song is one of Lightfoot’s most personal. It was written about his deteriorating marriage to his first wife Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, and he “moves from ruminating to his own reflections on the relationship to feelings of loneliness and grief.”

One of my favorite Lightfoot tunes is Song for a Winter’s Night. Here’s a great live version with an introduction that speaks to the inspiration for the story — a friend who lost his girlfriend and heads up to the chalet to drink away the winter night.

Steel Rail Blues, heard in the video below from a 1972 concert, was described as “the kind of song you write after you’ve been robbed, stepped on, and somebody’s done the rain dance all over your head.”

Well I been out here many a long day
I haven’t found a place that I could call my own
Not a two bit bed to lay my body on
I been stood up I been shook down
I been dragged into the sand
And the big steel rail
Gonna carry me home to the one I love

Another of his big hits was the aptly titled Beautiful, which is just that. Artists and reviewers from all different musical genres loved Gordon’s songs. That’s followed by another Lightfoot classic, That’s What You Get for Lovin’ Me.

Lightfoot’s music was accessible and beautifully crafted, and a wide range of musical artists covered his tunes. As Walter Tunis notes in his appreciation, these included “Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Neil Young, Nanci Griffith, Eric Clapton, Alison Krauss, Paul Weller, The Replacements and the Grateful Dead.”

Bluegrass musicians also loved Gordon’s music, none more so than the late Tony Rice. Perhaps the earliest Lightfoot tune he recorded was Ten Degrees and Getting Colder during his years with J.D. Crowe and the New South.

Over the years, Rice would drop a Lightfoot tune or two into his solo projects, and in 1996, after he had lost his voice, Rounder released a compilation album entitled Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. One of Tony’s signature tunes was Cold on the Shoulder, heard here with Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and Mark Schatz in a classic Merlefest performance. That’s followed by the newer generation of newgrassers — Punch Brothers — playing The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The line “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” is haunting.

Canadians loved having Lightfoot as one of their own. I cannot recall seeing editorial cartoons drawn for other folksingers upon their passing, much less tributes in the Canadian House of Commons and by the Toronto Maple Leaves, a hockey team, before their second round Stanley Cup game.

Tunis returned to Lightfoot later in the week on The Musical Box with his 10 Favorite Songs by Gordon Lightfoot. Everyone’s list will differ, but Walter has some excellent selections among his choices.

Carefree Highway, with images of highways and byways of western Canada, seems an appropriate tune on which to end this appreciation.

Rest in peace, Gordon Lightfoot. Your music will live on.

More to come…


This entry was posted in: Acoustic Music, Rest in Peace, Saturday Soundtrack


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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