Remembering Gordon Lightfoot (1938-2023)
The Canadian folk legend has left this Earth behind, along with a musical treasure horde.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I don’t want this newsletter to become the depressing musician memorial story of the week, but there was no way I could let Gordon Lightfoot’s passing go by without some kind of acknowledgment of the work he’s left us.
I will endeavor to find lighter topics in the future, but for now, let’s get to this week’s story.
I don’t remember discovering Gordon Lightfoot as an artist. It just seemed like the song “Sundown” always existed for as long as there was a radio in my possession. It didn’t, but it seems that way.
“Sundown” was released as a single in March of 1974, two months after Reprise Records released the album of the same name. I was seven years old when both the album and the song came out, and when that song was on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio program, it was the first time I can recall hearing the name Gordon Lightfoot. It was a No. 1 hit and I still find it fresh and vibrant every time I hear it.
“Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” and “If You Could Read My Mind” were ‘AM Gold’ staples. There was no need for me to buy the 45 single of any of those songs, because they were playing seemingly all the time. Some time after hearing those songs — and I’m not sure when that was — I first heard his stunning tribute, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The 1976 story-song is as beautiful as it is haunting and tragic. At six-and-a-half minutes, “Edmund Fitzgerald” is a hell of a long single, but it seems to fly by in some kind of weird time-travel way that belies the song’s midtempo pace. The story of the ill-fated, Great Lakes bulk carrier ship is told with the utmost respect and reverence, and Lightfoot somehow transfers those feelings to the listener.
It always amazes me when an artist can sing a song like that without getting choked up about the tragic subject matter. Lightfoot was an amazing artist, and that song went all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
For me, the love of Gordon Lightfoot’s total body of work doesn’t date back very far, though. Although I had loved each of his four songs with which I was familiar since my youth, he was one of those artists that I never seemed to think about. To my knowledge, my friends weren’t into his music, or anything remotely close to his style, although maybe some of their parents were. We were all listening to KISS records, the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks, and various K-Tel records around that time.
Over the years, I had recurring thoughts that I needed to check his music out more closely. I’d see the names of his records in the advertisements for the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, but there always seemed to be 12 albums I wanted more urgently — by artists like Styx, Rush, Genesis, etc.
I finally dipped my foot into the Gordon Lightfoot musical pool some time after I moved to Orlando, Florida in 2004 — perhaps three decades after I first heard one of his songs. My little family would occasionally make visits to the local branch of the Orlando Public Library, which had a fairly robust music section. I would find a book or two but then also check out a stack of CDs. Among those finds was a 1981 compilation called The Best of Gordon Lightfoot.
I took it home, listened through, and was blown away. All the hits I knew were on it, but it also introduced me to incredible songs like “Early Morning Rain,” “Rainy Day People,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “The Circle is Small,” and what became perhaps my favorite Gord song, “Summer Side of Life.” I was hooked and began to dive deeper into his catalog.
Gord’s unique, expressive voice is instantly recognizable. It’s a warm, comforting voice that spills out of the headphones and envelops me like a warm blanket on a cool night. Hearing it played from a pristine vinyl record is an otherworldly experience. If it hadn’t already often moved me to tears before Lightfoot’s death, I would be unprepared for how it affects me now.
His songs cover a variety of topics, but as a “folky,” who impressed even the great Bob Dylan, Lightfoot had some recurring themes — traveling, railroads, rain, ponies, nature, and various bodies of water. And there were love songs. He could also take someone else’s song and raise it to a new level, as he did with Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” made more famous by Janis Joplin.
My buddy Ben called me up a few months back and asked if I wanted to go see Gordon playing at the Plaza Live here in Orlando. I had been thinking about it, but I had been spending pretty hard on concert tickets around that time. In the end, I based my decision on some of his recent performances I had heard. Gordon was 84 years old and had been through some difficult health issues through the years, including being in a coma for six weeks, having stomach surgery, and undergoing a tracheotomy. He also had a minor stroke. Those kinds of things don’t leave anyone unscathed. Between his age and his health issues, his voice had suffered. I didn’t want to remember him like that, and combined with thoughts of the money I had shelled out for other concerts, I opted not to go. That was a mistake on my part.
I should have gone despite this late version of Gordon Lightfoot not being at the height of his powers. I should have bought a ticket to thank him for adding so much joy and beauty to my life through his music. That was the only real reason I went to see the last Genesis tour. I knew Phil Collins sounded like a frail old man and not the robust musical icon he was while I was growing up. I went to see Genesis on the band’s farewell tour to say goodbye to them, thank them, and pay my respects for everything they had given me over the years. I should have paid Lightfoot the same courtesy, and now I will never get to do that.
Although primarily known in the U.S. for a few 1970s hits, Lightfoot is a musical legend. It’s impossible to convey to a U.S. audience what a giant Lightfoot is in the history of recorded Canadian music. The simple way to do it is to say he was their Bob Dylan (with a far more pleasant voice), but that doesn’t quite do it justice.
At age 84, and with his history of health issues, Gord’s death on May 1 can’t be considered surprising. But it was still a stunning blow to hear about the loss of such a unique and legendary artist. Although I never got to see him perform live, I will always come back to his albums, his performances immortalized on YouTube, and the outstanding documentary, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind. I might even re-read the excellent Lightfoot biography I own, written by Nicholas Jennings.
I can’t recommend that documentary strongly enough. It’s available to watch on Amazon Prime. Jennings’ biography is also worth checking out. Gordon was far from a perfect man, but he was an extraordinarily talented artist, and there will never be another like him.
I know I’m not the only one whose life has been enriched by the music he leaves behind, and there is some comfort in that.
To discuss Gordon Lightfoot’s music and legacy, I enlisted the help of a fellow fan, the host of the Sly Dog Music-Cast, the Sly Dog himself! I hope you enjoy our cathartic remembrance of discovering Gord’s music and falling in love with it. I wasn’t happy with the way the video came out, so there isn’t one this week, but you can hear our discussion on Episode 107 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast.
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Excellent tribute and thanks for sharing your experiences with the music of Gordon Lightfoot. I completely agree about the greatness of "Summer Side of Life" and the documentary. I'm thankful I got to see him once in 2015. Although his voice was not at its peak, it was a wonderful concert. I strongly recommend Rick Beato's “What Makes this Song Great?” video about "If You Could Read My Mind": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X33YyowZZxQ