Canadians are waking up today to the sad news that we have lost one of our most iconic children. GORDON LIGHTFOOT, the indefatigable folksinger loved the world over has passed away.
Born in Orillia, Ontario, Lightfoot became an internationally renown folksinger. He virtually shaped the folk genre throughout the 60s and 70s, alongside such legends as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Lightfoot’s first public appearance–I love this story–was in the 1940s, over the PA system at his elementary school during a Parents’ Day event. Lightfoot sang the Irish lullaby Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral. It was just a glimmer of what was to come. He never stopped singing…
Back when I worked in a record store (Target Tape & Records) in the 70s, Lightfoot’s music could always be heard throughout the day as we priced vinyl and helped customers find their next great obsessions. Quite often, it was Lightfoot’s records they were taking home. This was the case whether they were hard rockers, disco enthusiasts, country, reggae, or pop fans. Kiss fans would pick up the newest Kiss album along with a Lightfoot. Engelbert Humperdinck fanatics would also have a Lightfoot in tow at the checkout. There are just some artists who refuse to be pigeonholed into a single lane in the music world. Lightfoot was one of them. Even throughout my punk and new wave phases in the early to mid-80s, Lightfoot was there. His records sat comfortably alongside Leonard Cohen, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Cure. There’s no explaining how some artists get to stay in the rotation throughout one’s life, other than the fact that their iconic sound never sours. It is eternal.
Lightfoot was one of those artists. His eternal sound never lost its edge. One of his most iconic songs, If You Could Read My Mind, was recorded by well over 100 artists, including Liza Minnelli, Olivia Newton-John, Glen Campbell, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Don McLean, and Barbra Streisand. Viola Wills made it a disco hit, while Stars on 54 kept the trend going.
Lightfoot walked in every lane. Whether you loved him or not, he probably had influence on your favourite artists. His songwriting skills earned him a forever place in Canada’s (and the world’s) music universe.
Lightfoot considered The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976) and Early Morning Rain (1966) his crowning achievements. The former, of course, was a song commemorating the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. The entire crew of that ship (29 souls) was lost in the accident. Lightfoot wrote about things that happened around him. He captured Canada and the world in his lyrics.
My own personal experience with Gordon Lightfoot took place in 2007. This was the year of my very first MUSKOKA NOVEL MARATHON experience. I wrote the 48 hour novel writing marathon that year. I left before the 72 hours was up. This was an option…you could either do two days or three. I wrote a really tumultuous story about a boy (Sebastian Nelson) growing up in the Beaches district of Toronto, in the 1970s, with his younger brother and his broken father. I had a folksinger character who came into the boys’ lives to pick up the slack where the father was failing. This folksinger was fashioned after another iconic Canadian…Montreal’s Leonard Cohen. It was a barely concealed homage to Cohen.
I wanted an epic closing chapter to my first MNM novel attempt, so I decided the Cohen character would go to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1980 benefit concert for Canadian Olympic athletes at CNE Grandstand here in Toronto. Lightfoot was actually a character in this final chapter. Lightfoot invited my character, Teal Landen, to join him on the stage. The two then sang a duet of If You Could Read My Mind. It was EPIC (to me)!
I really dove in to that story. I was possessed. I raced that story through the 1970s and I did not look back until I finally made it to the stage of that concert in 1980! I couldn’t wait to get Teal onto that stage at the CNE Grandstand and to that event hosted by none other than the great Gordon Lightfoot.
As I wrote that last chapter with tears in my eyes and excitement in my heart, I felt this great crescendo escalating with every word that raised to meet the ending. It was the denouement to a story that was often hectic and scary. It was the moment when my child character, from the wings of the CNE Grandstand stage, was finally able to exhale after a treacherous ride through a difficult childhood. It was the culmination of a full 48 hours of writing the same story start to finish and it was simultaneously electrifying and exhausting.
After writing that story the way I wanted it written, I didn’t want to risk anything. I didn’t know about copyright laws or what you were or were not allowed to do in fiction. Once the marathon was over, I immediately sought out both Leonard Cohen’s management and Gordon Lightfoot’s management. I wanted to secure permission from Lightfoot to use him as a character in my novel. And I wanted to secure permission to use Leonard Cohen lyrics. I had no idea if this was necessary or not. I just didn’t want to shop this novel around only to find out I’d have to scrap the last chapter (WHICH I ABSOLUTELY LOVED!)
Leonard Cohen’s management gave me permission on the lyrics almost immediately. The information I had for Gordon Lightfoot was a fax number. I meticulously created a cover letter explaining my request, and I added my final chapter to the fax. I imagined them being HOPPING MAD receiving all these pages at once. I envisioned them throwing the ‘junk mail’ fax into the bin with a curse.
That’s not what happened. About an hour after I sent the fax, I received a phone call from Barry Harvey…Lightfoot’s manager. Harvey was thrilled about my request. I could here his legitimate excitement as he spoke to me. He was happy that Lightfoot would be memorialized this way. He didn’t care if Sebastian’s Poet would become a bestseller, or even get published at all in the end. He was happy that I did it, period. And in the background, I actually heard Lightfoot talking. Harvey passed on a few comments that I had already heard in the background. They were happy to give me permission and they wished me luck with my endeavor.
Soon after I got off the phone, I received the signed permission. I still don’t know if this was something I actually needed or not. I just didn’t want to change a word of that last chapter. I was protective of my baby and doing everything I could to ensure it stayed intact. Lightfoot delivered tenfold! Barry Harvey passed away a couple of days later.
I’m sure there are as many Lightfoot stories as there are fans. He was a giving and generous person who interacted with his fans. He will be sadly missed. His music sneaks into the soundtracks of our lives when we least expect it. It always will. We are, after all, Canada… and so is he.
Gordon Lightfoot – November 17, 1938 – May 1, 2023
REST IN PEACE