On Monday evening, Gordon Lightfoot passed away at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He was 84. He had lately postponed his scheduled gigs due to his emphysema. His relatives claimed that he passed away naturally and in peace.
The legendary Canadian singer-songwriter told his longtime friend and booking agent Bernie Fiedler just before he passed away: “Bernie, we had a good run.”
“A good run” is an understatement, but it fits Lightfoot’s personality. In a conversation with me in 2019, he said, “I still question my ability,” at his home in Toronto’s Bridle Path neighborhood.
“I have my entire life, and I still do. I don’t think of myself as a genius by any stretch of the imagination. I find it offensive to be called such.”
Maybe that’s just the modesty of a “fair-haired farm boy from Orillia,” as The Globe and Mail’s John MacFarlane put it in 1966 when he wrote about the Ontarian from a sleepy Ontario village. That profile’s heading, one of the first significant Lightfoot features to be printed, was “Lyrical loner.”
Songwriting was a lonely, difficult chore for a perfectionist who frequently had writer’s block. Lightfoot created Canadian Railroad Trilogy in three days, fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and a sizable commission. He once compared songwriting sessions to dentist visits, saying both were unpleasant but necessary and should be finished as soon as possible.
He was thus his own harshest critic. But I also think he was his own biggest admirer. (Which may only indicate that he had good taste.) The songwriter being honored would frequently appear at the yearly Gordon Lightfoot tribute shows that took place at Hugh’s Room in Toronto for 15 years, sitting in the back to take in the performances of his songs. He was pleasantly taking in the sounds with his eyes closed.
I spoke with him in 2012 at Toronto’s Massey Hall, where he gave more than 170 performances. I was given a tour of the empty venue, after which he pointed to a small room backstage and said, “This is where I tune my guitar,” before he entered the stage and performed Knotty Pine and I’ll Tag Along while muttering to himself, once more with his eyes closed: ‘This time tomorrow, we might be all packed and gone; I believe we should carry on.’”
He was only acting for himself, not for me or anyone else.
Lightfoot was the type of musician for whom the term “singer-songwriter” was intended. He created and performed songs that reflected his own experiences while also aiming for broad lyrical appeal and, yes, commercial success. He delivered his material beautifully.
Lightfoot once enumerated the nine songs that were a must-have in every one of his live performances: Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Early Morning Rain, Don Quixote, In My Fashion, Beautiful, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Sundown, Carefree Highway, and If You Could Read My Mind.
Lightfoot had his favourites, as do you, and as do I. The best of his music was also the best of the genre – wistful, evocative expressions that hooked the listener with melancholic melodies and kept them with vivid imagery. He looked at life through rain-beaded windows. The song title Restless – “as we gaze off in the distance through the trees in my backyard” – was a word that described him.
While some categorize Lightfoot as a folky Canadiana troubadour, I hear mood music done with a poet’s touch. Something such as Pussywillows, Cat-tails is best heard with your mind open and eyes shut.
Catbirds and cornfields, daydreams together
Riding on the roadside the dust gets in your eyes
Reveling, disheveling, the summer nights can bring
Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses
Singer Lori Cullen recorded the song for her 2006 album Calling for Rain. “It feels like it is a part of who I am,” she told The Globe. “The cinematic descriptions of weather, nature and connection are universal, and the listener can easily find in them their own memories or interpretation.”
Cullen first heard of Lightfoot in an elementary school in suburban Toronto when her teacher brought in a guitar to sing Pussywillows, Cat-tails to the class. “I didn’t know anything about him at the time, but something about the song felt authentic.”
Cullen’s version of the song is one of dozens of top-shelf covers of Lightfoot’s material, rendered by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash on down. British electro-rock band Depeche Mode performed Sundown for BBC Radio 2 earlier this year.
Not that everyone was a fan. In his definitive biography Lightfoot, author Nicholas Jennings described a recording session involving Frank Sinatra, who attempted If You Could Read My Mind but quickly threw down the music sheets in frustration. “Forget it,” he said. “I can’t sing this. There are too many words.”
It is understandable that the crooner who famously sang two words twice – “New York, New York” – wouldn’t take to Lightfoot’s involved lyrics easily. Beginning in the 1960s, Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were of a new generation of sophisticated songwriters who perceived the power of picking the right words and putting them in the best possible order.
The last time I saw Lightfoot was at the Mariposa Folk Festival, held in his hometown of Orillia. He was being inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame. Part of the celebration involved an afternoon tribute on a small stage set in the trees. Among other Lightfoot interpreters, Cullen sang Bitter Green and The Way I Feel sublimely and James Keelaghan presented The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald memorably.
As at Hugh’s Room, in the crowd was Lightfoot himself, sitting in a chair a few feet from the side of the stage. He heard a spectral version of If You Could Read My Mind, about a marital breakup, from the folk duo Dala. With all due respect to Sinatra, the song has the ideal number of words.
Dala hauntingly sang the self-referential lyrics, with the line “You know the ghost is me” resonating particularly. Lightfoot listened, eyes closed. What was he thinking? We didn’t need to read his mind – we had his songs. We still do.