The Song Remains: Gordon Lightfoot (1938-2023)

His songs reflect his personal experiences and love of Canada, but his music travelled the world.

Gordon Lightfoot died on Monday, 1st May, in a Toronto hospital of undisclosed causes, having worked actively until 2022. It is very hard to do real justice to his influence and craft because he is one of the truly great singer-songwriters, covered by a host of artists across various genres, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Peter Paul and Mary, Jim Croce, Judy Collins, and The Grateful Dead. Despite his influence and reputation, he never let it go to his head, simply regarding himself as a working musician and songwriter. As well as his general influence, it is not easy to imagine what the Canadian music scene that produced Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young would have been like without his influence. He was a key architect of folk-pop and folk-rock, hitting commercial paydirt in the ’70s with a series of gold and platinum albums.

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. was born on 17th November 1938 in Orillia, Ontario. He had a musical childhood, performing in a church choir and writing songs while in high school, which led to him studying composition and orchestration in Los Angeles. He returned home to Canada to scratch a living work on television and the emerging Toronto folk scene that would also nurture Joni Michell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young; he also recorded in Nashville with Chet Atkins and worked in Europe, including hosting the BBC’s Country and Western Show, before being picked up by manager Albert Grossman and signed to United Artists in 1965. Gordon Lightfoot enjoyed considerable chart success in Canada before signing with Warner Brothers/Reprise in 1970 and achieving significant success in the American market in the ’70s. He continued to record, eventually leaving Warner Brothers for Linus Entertainment in the 2000s before returning to Warner Brothers for his last solo album, ‘Solo’, in 2020. His personal life included three marriages, struggles with alcoholism, and serious health concerns at the turn of the century.

Between his first and last solo albums, Gordon Lightfoot amassed a catalogue of songs that is the envy of any singer-songwriter with titles including ‘Early Morning Rain’, ‘Steel Rail Blues’, ‘The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald’ and many more. His songs covered his personal life, ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ is about the breakdown of his first marriage and current events, ‘Black Day In July’ is about the 1967 Detroit riot, a song that was subsequently banned, and ‘Canadian Railway Trilogy’, was written to celebrate Canada’s 1967 Centennial. His last studio album, 2020’s ‘Solo’, featured just Gordon Lightfoot of vocals and guitar and provided a fitting coda to his career, echoing his debut album ‘Lightfoot!’ and his still exquisite songs. A simple indicator of the greatness of his songs is the plethora of compilation albums covering released during his career. Gordon Lightfoot has proved to be a popular artist amongst Americana UK readers, with the feature covering his ten most essential songs being consistently in our most-read features months after it was initially posted.

As I said earlier, it is very hard to do justice to Gordon Lightfoot’s achievements, but the thoughts of other artists and actions of institutions are proof positive of his standing. Bob Dylan said when he heard a Gordon Lightfoot song, “It’s like I wish it would last forever.” which is a sign of Gordon Lightfoot’s standing with other artists. The great bluegrass guitarist released a compilation of his own versions of Gordon Lightfoot songs, so enamoured was he of the Canadian songwriter. At the start of the 21st Century, Gordon Lightfoot was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest Canadian civilian honour, reflecting his artistic achievements and his championing of his home country. Fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson of The Band called him “a national treasure“. Finally, Gordon Lightfoot is reported to have said on CBC in 2004, “I want to be like Ralph Stanley, Stompin’ Tom, and Willie Nelson. Just do it for as long as possible.“, an ambition he definitely achieved. Lightfoot’s career and life were everything a life and career could ever hope for; Trouble, love, success and failure all in spades. He summed it up in his last album, ‘Solo‘ with his last single ‘Oh So Sweet’ summarising his time on earth:

The road I chose was not all it should be
But sometimes it was, oh, so sweet“.

About Martin Johnson 392 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark McCall

Enjoyed reading that Martin. I had never heard of Gordon Lightfoot until the guy who runs my excellent local record shop sold me a copy of Sundown for £4 a couple of months ago. I’ve subsequently delved into his catalogue and become a huge fan. I guess we’ve all got our favourite songs but the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a bit special. His voice just somehow suits the haunting nature of the track – and the story. There’s a documentary about it on YouTube which is well worth a look. Sad he’s left us but he leaves a pretty impressive body of work.

andy riggs

Fine article thanks, worth checking out his lesser known songs.

wpDiscuz support

very nice

Anita

I was lucky enough to see Gordon Lightfoot at the O’Keefe centre in Toronto in 1966. I went with a girlfriend to see this folk singer who I had never heard of (being newly arrived from England). He appeared with another singer called Bonnie something or other.
I was completely captivated by his voice unlike anything I had heard before having just left the Merseybeat sound behind in England. I went and bought my first record although I didn’t have a record player.
Although he never really had a presence in the uk, I followed his releases and know the words to most of his well known songs.
I am now watching a concert from 1972 on BBC4 and the memories are flooding back.
RIP GL, you had one hell of a voice!