Today is Gordon Lightfoot’s birthday. The guy is a wonderful songwriter, an old-fashioned carouser who is also an incurable romantic and a pensive kind of man’s man.

I first saw Lightfoot perform live in 1970 at Dartmouth’s Spaulding Auditorium in the Hopkins Center for the Arts just after he had jumped to Warner Brothers from United Artists and released Sit Down, Young Stranger (the album was later renamed If You Could Read My Mind in honor of the hit the album produced). It was a terrific show with his sidekick Red Shea on lead guitar and a fine bass player backing him. When we saw Lightfoot most recently at the State Theater in Minneapolis a few years ago, he had become something of a shadow of himself.

In 1999 Rhino issued a four-disc box set of Lightfoot’s work that it titled Songbook. It covers roughly thirty years and eighty songs. When I went to the cashier to pay for it at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis — a store that specializes in music way cooler than Lightfoot — the cashier started singing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to give me grief. He knew nothing!

The box set is a revelation. Lightfoot was still writing great songs into the ’80s. Take a look at the first verse and chorus of “Shadows,” a song with a haunting melody from his last Warner Brothers album:

Let me reach out love and touch you,
Let me hold you for awhile.
I’ve been all around the world —
Oh how I long to see you smile.

There’s a shadow on the moon
And the waters here below
Do not shine the way they should
And I love you just in case you didn’t know.

Let it go,
Let it happen like it happened once before.
It’s a wicked wind
And it chills me to the bone
And if you do not believe me
Come and gaze upon the shadow at your door.

Or this classic story song from Lightfoot’s heyday — “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder”:

He was standin’ by the highway with a sign that just said “Mother”
When he heard a driver comin’ ’bout a half a mile away.
Then he held the sign up higher, where no decent soul could miss it.
It was ten degrees or colder down by Boulder dam that day.

He was raised up in Milwaukee — though he never was that famous.
He was just a road musician — to the taverns he would go
Singin’ songs about the ramblin’, the lovin’ girls and gamblin’.
How the world fell on his shoulders back in Boulder I don’t know.

It was out in Arizona that he heard the lady listenin’
To each word that he was sayin’, to each line that he would write.
So he sat down by her table and they talked about the weather —
Ninety-eight point six and risin’ down by Boulder dam that night.

And she told him she would take him for a ride
In the mornin’ sun. Back in Boulder he had told her,
“I don’t know when I had a better friend.”

Now he’s traded off his Martin [guitar], but his troubles are not over
For his feet are almost frozen and the sun is sinkin’ low.
Won’t you listen to me, brother? If you ever loved your mother
Please pull off on the shoulder if you’re goin’ Milwaukee way.
It’s ten degrees and getting colder down by Boulder dam today.

In the booklet that comes with Songbook, Lightfoot annotates every song but one. Many of the songs are explained by reference to an affair that had ended or just begun. Of the eighty-some songs included on Songbook, the only one Lightfoot declined to comment on was “Shadows,” but I think both parts of the characteristic explanation apply. It’s a song about an old affair that he wants to start up again years later.

In the video below, Alison Krauss and Union Station are joined by guitar virtuoso and Lightfoot fan Tony Rice for a ravishing version of “Shadows.” (For Rice’s version of the song, backed by some of Nashville’s finest musicians, check this.) This performance by Krauss beautifully adorns Lightfoot’s reticence regarding the song and pays tribute to Rice as one of the sources of her own musical inspiration.


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