Gordon Lightfoot’s 10 Essential Songs

Bob Dylan once named Gordon Lightfoot one of his favorite songwriters and called the musician “someone of rare talent” when he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986. On the album “Self Portrait” of Dylan in 1970, he even recorded “Early Morning Rain”, and the respect was mutual – Lightfoot listened carefully to Dylan’s songs, which instilled in him “a more direct approach, moving away from the songs of love,” he once said.

In a long career that drew inspiration from Greenwich Village folk and Laurel Canyon pop, Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr., who died Monday at 84, was embraced by a diverse group of musicians: Elvis Presley and Duran Duran, Lou Rawls and Replacements. He sang in a sad baritone full of tenacity and an almost professorial air, and specialized in songs that lingered on loneliness, or told of unhappy relationships, in a grounded language that drew on folk modes. and blues.

“Lightfoot is the voice of the romantic”, wrote Geoffrey Stokes of The Village Voice in 1974. “For him (as for Don Quixote, one of his chosen heroes), perfection is always in sight and always eludes him.”

Nowhere was Lightfoot more beloved than in his native Canada, where he helped transform his music industry into a global force. “He sent a message to the world that we’re not just a bunch of lumberjacks and hockey players here,” Rush’s Geddy Lee said in “If You Could Read My Mind,” a 2019 documentary. capable of sensitivity and poetry. In the process, Lightfoot became one of the most successful artists of the 1970s.

Here are 10 of Lightfoot’s most beloved and impactful songs.

The folk lore that Lightfoot first worked in is full of boastful songs about wandering men getting into the territory, but this one is particularly cruel. He is driven by his sturdy acoustic guitar and the elegant accents of David Rea, which reinforce the height of the lyrics. “All you have is gone,” Lightfoot tells the woman he is leaving. “That’s what you get for loving me.” His broken heart will eventually mend, he adds, at which point “I could go through this again”. He later felt some embarrassment about the song and said, “I didn’t know what chauvinism was.”

Lightfoot grew up in bucolic central Ontario, which could hardly be further from Memphis, but he sounds almost southern on this fast, simple folk song, which Presley recorded a few years later. Its theme is homesickness (Lightfoot was living in Los Angeles when he wrote it); the narrator, who is “as cold and drunk as can be”, in addition to being broke, watches a 707 fly overhead and longs for his freedom as he yearns for his hometown.

In this clever depiction of wounded pride, Lightfoot reunites with an old friend to blow on the breeze, but amid the chatter about sports and mutual acquaintances, he casually slips in a question that reveals his agenda: “By the way, a Did she mention my name?” This song and “For Lovin’ Me” are fraternal twins, united by their fascination with male pride.

Lightfoot mainly worked on the relational side of folk music and left the political side to others. The controversial “Black Day in July” has a choppy and volatile drum track and 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 soul of Motor City is feared across the country”) and most American radio stations refused to play it.

Lightfoot’s commercial breakthrough (it reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100) is also his masterpiece, with the help of Nick DeCaro’s cascading string arrangement. The lyrics, inspired by his impending divorce, range from poetic to austere, until he reaches the stoic summary: “Stories always end”. The melody inspired Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer,” and the song has been covered by a who’s who of singers, including Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash and Neil Young – and, almost, by Frank Sinatra, who tried to save but gave up. , declaring it “too long”.

Lightfoot was an alcoholic who knew a lot about tumultuous relationships. He wrote “Sundown” while in a fit of jealousy over Cathy Smith, a girlfriend whose cheekbone he broke in a fight. The lyrics are dark and the snaking guitar solo is one of the great Red Shea’s finest moments. The song has been covered by, among others, gothic legends Scott Walker and Depeche Mode.

The mid-’70s was Lightfoot’s commercial heyday, but this successor to the top 10 pop hits “Sundown” and “Carefree Highway” didn’t get the acclaim it deserved. The chords and lyrics are reminiscent of Jimmy Webb, while Lightfoot, with his usual precise delivery, celebrates how loyal friendships give rescue to “leapfrog strutters who land in the gutters”.

His best-known song is one of pop’s most unlikely hits: a six-and-a-half-minute folk ballad about a freighter that sank in Lake Superior a year earlier, killing 29 crew members. It’s also probably the only Top 40 song to ever mention Gitche Gumee, the Chippewa name for Lake Superior. Mischievous rock band NRBQ would sometimes play a slow, out-of-tune cover of the song, and if the audience didn’t like it, they would also play it a second time.

In some of Lightfoot’s lyrics, it’s hard to tell whether the conflicts he describes are factual or simply by-products of a suspicious imagination. In this slightly scornful song about infidelity, which he recorded in 1968 and re-recorded 10 years later, in a higher version, he believes his lover is using a friend’s apartment to have an affair, and he under – hears that he will eventually catch up with her: “The city where we live may be big enough/But the circle is small.”

In the 1980s, as music moved away from acoustic sounds, Lightfoot pursued pop success using synthesizers, drum machines and producer David Foster, but he didn’t sound like himself. By the time of “Harmony”, he had resumed working with guitarists Shea and Terry Clements. Smoking had eaten away at the top of his range, but the title track from his penultimate studio album has a fragile, hard-won tenderness that seems to look back on his career (and life) with peaceful regret.

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