When the news came late Monday it was as if it was expected. Gordon Lightfoot, Canada’s preeminent singer-songwriter had died at the age of 84.
Just a few weeks ago he had cancelled his concert dates for 2023, and while fans were hoping they would be rescheduled I had a sense that the end was drawing near for an icon of our generation.
I spent some time Tuesday thinking about what Gordon Lightfoot has meant to me and to this nation. He was our voice, the one who captured the vastness of the Canadian landscape and the depths of the Canadian soul. There have been other great singer-songwriters who have captured Canada. Neil Young, Gord Downie Joni Mitchell, Stan Rogers, Ian Tyson and Bruce Cockburn all come to mind, but Lightfoot was in a class by himself. His music is timeless.
There were no tears when I heard the news on Monday. There were a few as I reflected on Tuesday.
I don’t remember when I first heard a Gordon Lightfoot record. Sometime in the mid-1960s I guess. Once I hit my teens, and had some disposable cash, I bought each new record as it came out (and picked up the old ones also).
I think I qualify as a true fan: I owned a copy of a record called Sit Down Young Stranger. At least, that was the title when I bought it. It was quickly renamed when the first single became a monster hit: “If You Could Read My Mind.” I have the impression there weren’t many copies made with the original title.
There are so many things I could say here that i don’t know where to begin – and I am afraid that if I start I won’t be able to stop. There’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” which captured the creation of the biggest industrial project in our history – the transcontinental railroad. The song was a commission from the CBC, which shows that you can sometimes make great art on demand. A song telling an epic story, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is perhaps better known to American listeners.
So many of the songs evoke my teen years (and earlier). I remember hearing “Black Day in July” (a song banned on U.S. radio) for the first time on CFOX radio in Montreal – a radio station that helped transition me from childhood to my teen years. Or “Did She Mention My Name” – a bittersweet love song that I regularly play on guitar, a song that captures small town Canada and lost love.
I don’t remember how many times I saw Gordon Lightfoot play live. Possibly half a dozen times over five decades. The last couple of times he was definitely showing the effects of illness and age. His voice, once so powerful, had become more of a whisper. But he was still Lightfoot, and the songs were strong on their own, even as the delivery was weak.
If you had asked me, I would have said I last saw him perform about six years ago – but it turns out it was longer. I shared my thoughts on the show here.
I only met him once, I think, after a show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I don’t remember what we talked about – just small talk I guess, thanking him for the show. What I do remember is his graciousness. Most musicians don’t come out after a show to greet the fans. Gordon did.
Lightfoot’s death is a reminder of the changing of the musical guard. So many musicians I listened to in my teen years have died or are aging. Last week Tim Bachman, of Bachman Turner Overdrive, died. He was predeceased by his brother Robbie by just a couple of months.
In the months and years to come I imagine I am going to have quite a few opportunities to reflect on the passage of various musicians I have known or seen in concert. Somehow the idea doesn’t seem real. The music will live on, but those making it will not. I’m not sure I like that.
I thought I’d share two songs with you today. The first, at the beginning of the post, is Lightfoot as he sounded back in the 1960s. The second is a song from the same period that was done as a tribute, back when Gordon was a star in Canada but basically unknown in the rest of the world. The Guess Who (including Randy Bachman before BTO) captured the style and substance of a Lightfoot song, including weaving in teh names of his band members and the titles of some of his songs. It was the song I turned to first when I hear the news of his death.
And as a bonus, a COVID era Canada Day show, Gordon Lightfoot performing on his front steps. I hadn’t seen this one before – I was in Germany then and not thinking about Canada Day.
Do you have a favorite Lightfoot tune? Let me know..
One of my favourites is ‘Song for a Winter’s Night’.
I’d add Anne Murray to your list of Canadian music icons.
I’ve seen Anne in concert a couple of times. I didn’t include her because she doesn’t write her own material.