Bob Dylan once named Gordon Lightfoot as one of his favorite songwriters, calling the musician “a person of rare talent” during his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986. On Dylan’s 1970 album “Self Portrait,” he even recorded Lightfoot’s Early Rain morning” and the respect was mutual—Lightfoot listened carefully to Dylan’s songs, which instilled in him “a more direct approach, a departure from love songs,” he once said.
In an expanded career that has drawn from Greenwich Village music and Laurel Canyon pop, Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. , who died Monday at the age of 84, featured a diverse group of musicians: Elvis Presley, Duran Duran, Lou Rawls and The Replacements. Sung in a melancholy voice full of tenacity and an almost professorial atmosphere, he specialized in songs that focused on isolation, or recounting unhappy relationships, in an ingrained language drawing on folk and blues styles.
“Lightfoot is the voice of romance,” Geoffrey Stokes of The Village Voice wrote in 1974. “For him (as for Don Quixote, one of his eclectic heroes) perfection is always in sight and always slipping from his grasp.”
Nowhere was Lightfoot more beloved than in his native Canada, where he helped transform the music industry into a global powerhouse. “It sent a message to the world that we’re not just a bunch of lumberjacks and hockey players here,” Rush’s Jeddy Lee said in a 2019 documentary. “We are capable of sensitivity and poetry.” In the process, Lightfoot became one of the most successful recording artists of the 1970s.
Here are 10 of Lightfoot’s most beloved and touching songs.
“to love me” (1966)
The folk tradition in which Lightfoot first worked is filled with cheerful songs about wandering men who light up the area, but this one is uniquely cruel. It’s propelled by his powerful acoustic guitar strumming and David Rea’s elegant finger-picking accents, which enhance the vocals’ richness. “Your everything is gone,” Lightfoot tells the woman he is leaving. “That’s what you get for loving you.” He adds that her broken heart would eventually mend, at which point she “was ordered this way again.” He later felt some awkwardness about the song, and said, “I didn’t know what jingoism was.”
“early morning rain” (1966)
Lightfoot grew up in rural central Ontario, which could hardly be far from Memphis, but he sounds almost Southern in this simple, energetic folk song, which Presley recorded a few years later. Its subject matter is homesickness (Lightfoot was living in Los Angeles when he wrote it); The narrator, who, in addition to being broken, “cold and drank as much as I could,” watches the 707 soar through the sky and envies its freedom as he longs for his hometown.
“Did you mention my name?” (1968)
In this deft portrayal of wounded pride, Lightfoot reunites with an old friend to shoot the breeze, but amid conversations about sports and mutual acquaintances, he casually slips in a question that reveals his agenda: “By the way, did I mention my name?” This song and “For Lovin’ Me” are fraternal twins, joined by their infatuation with a male pride.
“The Black Day in July” (1968)
Lightfoot mostly worked on the personal side of popular music and left the political side to others. Featuring a turbulent and uneasy drum track, the controversial “Black Day in July” describes the July 1967 uprisings in Detroit in which black residents protested police abuse, prompting the governor to send in the National Guard and the president to send in the army. The song is full of irony, scorn, and bewilderment (“The spirit of Motor City frights across the land”) and most US radio stations refused to play it.
“If you could read my mind” (1970)
Lightfoot’s commercial breakthrough (it reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100) is also his masterpiece, aided by Nick DeCaro’s sequel arrangement. The lyrics, inspired by his impending divorce, range from poetic to stark, until he reaches the stoic summary: “Stories always come to an end.” The melody inspired Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer,” and the song has been covered by a host of singers, including Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Neil Young — and almost Frank Sinatra who tried to record it but gave up, declaring it “too long.”
Lightfoot was an alcoholic who knew a lot about tempestuous relationships. He wrote “Sundown” while in a fit of jealous fantasies about Cathy Smith, his girlfriend whose cheekbone he once broke during a fight. The lyrics are dark, and the guitar solo is one of Red Shea’s best moments. The song has been covered by Goth Legends Scott Walker And Intercept mode.
“rainy day people” (1975)
The mid-1970s was Lightfoot’s commercial heyday, but this heir to the Top 10 hits “Sundown” and “Carefree Highway” never got the reception it deserved. The chords and lyrics call to mind Jimmy Webb, as Lightfoot, with his usual subtle rhetoric, celebrates the way loyal friendships lend sustenance to “high-stepping talkers tumbling down the gutters.”
His most famous song is one of pop’s most unlikely: a six-and-a-half-minute ballad about a cargo ship that sank in Lake Superior a year ago, killing 29 crew members. It is certainly the only Top 40 song ever to mention Gitche Gumee, the Chippewa name for Lake Superior. The punk rock band NRBQ occasionally played a role The song’s cover is slow and out of tuneand if the audience didn’t like it, it would play again too.
“small circle” (1978)
In some of Lightfoot’s words, it’s hard to tell whether the struggles he describes are realistic or just by-products of a suspect imagination. In this absurd song about cheating, which he recorded in 1968 and re-recorded 10 years later, in an uptempo version, he thinks his mistress is using a friend’s apartment to continue an affair, and he suggests he’ll eventually catch her: “The town we live in might be Too big/But the circle is small.”
In the 1980s, as music moved away from acoustic sounds, Lightfoot chased pop success with synthesizers, drum machines and producer David Foster, but he never looked like himself. By the time of “Harmony”, he had returned to working with guitarists Shea and Terry Clements. His tobacco use has eroded at the top of his range, but the title track of his penultimate studio album has a crisp, hard-won tenderness that seems to look back on his career (and his life) with quiet regret.
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