Gordon Lightfoot, RIP
Canada lost its greatest folk singer in Gordon Lightfoot, who died on Monday at the age of 84.
Lightfoot's music hailed pioneers, working men, laborers, little guys, trailblazers, and even drunken losers in the true folk tradition of both Canada and the U.S. It was sensitive but distinctly he-man masculine, a vivid reminder of such a thing in this age of anti-masculinity. He sang of the same world described by longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer. His music, though Canadian, had a significant affinity for Michigan, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, upstate New York, and states of the historic northwest, where there are many fans. And while many obituaries described Lightfoot's work as "1970s," that's nonsense. His work is so well crafted and original that it doesn't date. It's as easily listened to today as when it first was released, standing the test of time.
Not surprisingly, Lightfoot's death triggered an outpouring of grief and reminiscing on Twitter and beyond, and rightly so.
Even Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a woke leftist who is all about persecuting working men such as Canadian truckers, unexpectedly wrote a gracious tribute:
We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters. 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. To his family,…— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) May 2, 2023
Rolling Stone, which isn't bad when it focuses on music instead of politics. wrote the best obit:
GORDON LIGHTFOOT — a genius-level Canadian singer-songwriter whose most enduring works include "If You Could Read My Mind," "Sundown," "Carefree Highway," "Early Morning Rain," and "Rainy Day People" — died on Monday, the CBC confirmed. He was 84.
Lightfoot's deceptively simple songs, which fused folk with pop and country rock, have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to the Grateful Dead, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, and the Replacements.
He scored a series of hits in his native Canada throughout the Sixties, but most Americans first heard his work in 1970 when "If You Could Read My Mind" reached Number Five on the Hot 100. The deeply personal song chronicles the agonizing breakdown of his marriage, casting much of the blame on himself. "I never thought I could act this way," he wrote. "And I've got to say that I just don't get it/I don't know where we went wrong/But the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back."
"I can't think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don't like," Bob Dylan once said. "Every time I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever."
Seems there was no politics to hang onto Lightfoot, who was never a spewer of politically obnoxious opinions, so Rolling Stone could focus only on his music.
Dylan wasn't his only fan. There also was Queen Elizabeth, who loved Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy:
A six-and-a-half minute folk ballad about the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway would be a slog in the hands of most songwriters. But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked Lightfoot to write the historical song to celebrate Canada's centennial year in 1967, he poured his heart into the task and emerged with a masterpiece about the history of his country and the resilience of the human spirit. "I stayed up all night working on it, right up until nine or ten in the morning," Lightfoot said. "Then sleep and pile right back into it. Coffee, cigarettes — nothing else. No booze at that point. The song was done in three days." The end result was so beloved that even Queen Elizabeth became aware of it. "I met her in our capital, Ottawa, at a Canada Day celebration," Lightfoot said in 2016. "She told me how much she loved the 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy.' She looked at me and said, 'Oh, that song,' and then said again, 'That song,' and that was all she said." —A.G.
Coming from the normally reticent queen — wow.
Many writers have described the evocativeness of Lightfoot's work, its actual poetry, its tight and careful choices of words, and its believable storytelling, its tales of love lost, and all those things are well said. What fascinates me most in Lightfoot's music is his talent for conveying motion, transport motion, just through musical notes, tempo, rhythm, and lyrics to a level unlike anything else I've ever heard in music outside classical composers such as Copeland, Grofe, Villalobos, and Dvorak. Possibly even better.
How could anyone not feel the heaving of the sea on a small, insignificant ship in "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"? The poignant lyrics, which from the song's first scratchy chord convey the terror and sorrow of a lonely shipwreck at sea, still send a chill precisely because one feels that one is also on the heaving, cracking ship, the vast, angry, icy Lake Superior all around:
Or the slowly accelerating clack, clack of a train on rails in Lightfoot's magnificent Canadian Railroad Trilogy? The listener can simply feel the riding experience even as the lyrics uplift about the heavy labor and the bright future ahead.
Or the high-pitched whir of jet aircraft and glare on metal from an outdoor airport in the wistful "Early Morning Rain," a tale about a laborer who apparently spent his paycheck on drink and missed his flight home, with that "and there she goes, my plane"?
Or the feeling of tires on a vast desert highway roaring away, as in "Carefree Highway"?
It's magnificent aural representation, and Lightfoot did indeed have a genius for it.
That's hardly all there was to his great body of music, but it's one aspect that could use more attention than it usually gets.
I have "Gord's Gold" playing on my Amazon Music on my cell phone next to my computer, with not a bad song in the long sequence. What a breathtaking talent he was. How different he was from the idiots and mixers we are subject to today in music. He was one of a kind, and we shall not see his like again.
Rest in peace.
Image: Screen shot from KTLA video via YouTube.