While we were out at the Dakota last night taking in British folk giant Richard Thompson came the news that the singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot had died at the age of 84. He was a proud Canadian, but one wouldn’t call him a Canadian folk giant. He was a folk giant simply — a brilliant songwriter, an old-fashioned carouser who was also an incurable romantic, and a pensive kind of man’s man. William Grimes’s New York Times obituary is posted here.
In 1999 Warner Archives/Rhino issued a four-disc boxed set of Lightfoot’s work that it simply titled Songbook. It covers roughly thirty years and 88 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. It’s a fantastic song in the great tradition, but even so, he knew nothing! The set is a revelation.
Lightfoot was something of a songwriter’s songwriter. He wrote “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” on commission. He said he probably wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without the model of Bob Gibson’s “Civil War Trilogy.” He recalled Canadian author Pierre Berton complimenting him on an elevator one day: “You know, Gord, you said as much in that song as I said in my book [about the building of the Canadian railroad].”
To exaggerate with some justification, I think Lightfoot’s songs can basically be divided into two — those about the dissolution of a romantic relationship and those about the (usually guilty) start-up of a romantic relationship during the dissolution of an old one. As Lightfoot explained to Bill Bennett on Bill’s Morning in America show several years back, “If You Could Read My Mind” falls into the former category.
A few of Lightfoot’s songs combine the themes of old love and new love. Among those I would cite “Same Old Loverman” and “Shadows.” Not coincidentally, they are special. Of the 88 songs included on Songbook, the only one Lightfoot declined to comment on was “Shadows.” On the theme here see also “The Mountains and Maryann” and “Long Thin Dawn.”
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 Bros. from United Artists and released Sit Down, Young Stranger (the album was later renamed If You Could Read My Mind to take advantage of the hit the album produced). It was a terrific show with his sidekick Red Shea on lead guitar and Rick Haynes on bass backing him. When we saw him at the State Theater in Minneapolis 15 or so years ago, he had become something of a shadow of himself.
“10 Degrees & Getting Colder” is peak Lightfoot. The weather serves as a rich metaphor here much as it does in the poetry of Robert Frost.
Does everyone know “Beautiful”? It is a knockout of a love song. What a legacy he leaves.
“I’ll Tag Along” is a lesser-known gem dating to 1986. “This time tomorrow we might all be packed and gone / I believe it’s best we carry on.” RIP.