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Celebrating Gordon Lightfoot: How the Canadian Singer-Songwriter Carved Out his Legacy


Author: Stef Curran


Canadians, and truly those across the world, felt the pain Monday evening when news broke that legendary singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot had left us at the age of 84.


One of the most skilled storytellers and writers, Lightfoot made his name by showing vulnerability, telling authentic Canadian stories, and sharing the human experience through beautiful melodies that all listeners can enjoy.


Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario in 1938, which at the time of his childhood had a population of just under 10,000. Just like any rural Canadian town, Orillia, even without the resources of a big city, paved the path forward for Lightfoot and his future in music. Lightfoot began to sing when he was a schoolboy, singing in his local church choir, supported by his family and other residents of Orillia. When he was 12 years old, Lightfoot competed in the Kiwanis Music Festival and ended up placing first in his category. After his win, he was invited to sing at Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall, a place he would revisit over a hundred times throughout his successful career. The rest is history.


Lightfoot signed a contract with Albert Grossman, a man who specialized in folk-rock music with clients spanning from Lightfoot, to Janis Joplin, Peter Paul and Mary, and many more. Grossman also managed another legendary singer-songwriter known by many, Bob Dylan. Dylan and Lightfoot quickly became friends, often sharing ideas for songs, melodies, and more. Lightfoot also spent time with another legendary Canadian musician, Joni Mitchell. One of the most amazing sneak peeks into the minds of these folk icons occurs after Bob Dylan invited Lightfoot and Mitchell to perform in his Rolling Thunder Revue show. Luckily for us who want to relive it, there is a video of the three friends jamming back at Lightfoot's house, showing Mitchell and Dylan singing Mitchell’s new song Coyote.



Lightfoot’s music is so genuine, sticking with people over time. This includes other artists who have covered his songs, such as friend Bob Dylan, The Clancey Brothers, and yes, even the King Elvis Presley. But it doesn’t stop there.


In 1998, Stars on 54, a house music collective consisting of Amber (Dutch-German techno singer), Ultra Naté (America's singer and producer), and Jocelyn Enriquez (Filipino-American singer), was created to cover one of Lightfoot’s most recognizable songs If You Could Read My Mind in their own style for the movie 54, highlighting the history of the famous, star studded nightclub Studio 54. The cover of Lightfoot’s beautiful and tragic tune created a huge wave in the music community, and was one of the highlights of 54’s soundtracks. The ability to take this folk ballad and create an iconic dance-pop song shows the versatility of music, and the versatility of Lightfoot’s songwriting.



Gordon Lightfoot was, and will continue to be, a hero for many beginner musicians and songwriters who are looking to forward their career and expand their skills. Lightfoot’s legacy offers a mass discography of a wide variety of subject matter, personal stories, and history lessons (which younger folks in Canada will remember, having to watch the lyric video for The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in social studies class). Lightfoot made decisions that influenced his career, and really created the blueprint for young Canadian musicians looking to follow in his footsteps.



DEEP DIVE: The Gems


While Lightfoot didn’t have as many hit singles or records as Bob Dylan, he left us a collection of beautiful songs, and I would like to highlight some of my favourites that will always be mega hits in my heart.



If You Could Read My Mind


Starting off with one of Lightfoot’s most popular songs, If You Could Read My Mind tells the story of Lightfoot’s marriage, and the loss of the love that once was. This song, with an instantly recognizable melody, brings so much calm to listeners without being too emotionally heavy. This is the beauty of songwriters; they can take real genuine experiences and feelings, and turn it into something that can make someone feel the same, or completely different. It all depends on how we, the listeners, connect with the song. It is an instant classic, and as I have said before on this blog, the way Lightfoot sings “paperback novel” will forever be one of my favourite musical moments.


If I could read your mind, love

What a tale your thoughts could tell

Just like a paperback novel

The kind the drugstore sells

When you reach the part where the heartaches come

The hero would be me

But heroes often fail

And you won't read that book again

Because the ending's just too hard to take



Me and Bobby McGee


While his songs were being covered by some of music's biggest acts of the time, Lightfoot released a cover of Janis Joplin’s song Me and Bobby McGee. This cover stays true to Joplin’s original version, but with small twists to make it closer to Lightfoot’s situation. A song like Me and Bobby McGee has been covered many times by many artists, but Lightfoot’s version keeps things stripped back and real, making it feel like his own.



Your Love’s Return


If you haven’t noticed a pattern by now, If You Can Read My Mind is my favourite Lightfoot album, and there is no doubt that Your Love’s Return is my favourite track from it. This song is a beautiful story of a man searching for forgiveness from his love, asking her to remember what used to be and to return her love to him. This song brings acceptance of the problems caused by the male character and the willingness for him to take it all back so he can have his true love once again. I mean, if someone wrote me this song, I would probably forgive them.


Come to the door my pretty one

Put on your rings and precious things

Hide all your tears as best you can

Try to recall what used to be

Roses are waiting for dewdrops to fall

Climbing your windows and walls

Bells in steeple are ringing

Singing

Listen to them talk about your love's return




Affair on 8th Avenue


This haunting Lightfoot tune brings listeners into a story of a man and a woman having an affair, a fleeting moment of a secret love. The specifics of the affair, or the relationships of the characters, are not spoken, but with lyrics like “and we played a game only she could win” points to the male character being tied to someone else, but not the woman.


On https://www.lightfoot.ca/glfacts.htm, it states that Affair on 8th Avenue was “inspired by a German waitress working at the Playboy Club in New York City.” Maybe this song is truly about Lightfoot and this waitress, perhaps the temptation it presented? Even though it is not clear, this song still offers one of the most haunting, secretive melodies in Lightfoot’s discography, and sticks out against the rest.




The Last Time I Saw Her


The Last Time I Saw Her comes from the album Did She Mention My Name? which is an album that really pokes at the emotions of a heartbroken man. This song in particular shows how much pain continues on even long after a breakup with someone we loved. The lyrics in The Last Time I Saw Her paint some of the most beautiful imagery of pain and heartbreak, focusing on the last times the main character had his lover, and how he can’t forget these moments. Not only can’t he forget them, he doesn’t really want to. As they fade, he is trying with all his might to keep them fresh, even though they are just fleeting memories now.


The lyric “and if time could heal the wounds, I would tear the threads away that I might bleed some more” is one of my favourite Lightfoot lyrics, personifying the want to rip open these emotional wounds just so you can have one more moment with the love you once felt. This song shows how deep Lightfoot got in his storytelling, leaving no emotion unturned, and creating songs that really resonate with love and human experience.


But that was so long ago

That I can scarcely feel

The way I felt before

And if time could heal the wounds,

I would tear the threads away

That I might bleed some more

The last time I saw her face,

Her eyes were bathed in starlight

And she walked alone




Race Among the Ruin


Race Among the Ruins tells a story that is very relatable to Lightfoot; achieving something not many others do, reaching your dreams, and how it isn’t always what you think it will be. It is obviously based on Lightfoot’s personal experiences, both with artists and being an artist himself. The song cautions listeners that this world is full of both beautiful and tragic moments, and by keeping yourself humble, focusing on the world that you surround yourself with, you’ll always have the support you need to face these moments. Just because you reach your dreams, if you don’t have your loved ones or friends by your side, “tomorrow” could bring real challenges.


When you wake up to the promise

Of your dream world comin' true

With one less friend to call on

Was it someone that I knew

Away you will go sailin'

In a race among the ruins

If you plan to face tomorrow

Do it soon


Looking at the Rain


There is no shortage of references to rain in Lightfoot’s musical history. Often in music, rain is used to show sadness or longing, and this is definitely the case for Looking at the Rain off of his Don Quixote album. This song shows how everyday things such as looking at rain, feeling and seeing the wind, can invoke memories within us. It is a very simple song, simple lyrics, but is a song that is set up for easy connection from listeners. Sometimes the best songs from singer-songwriters are the ones that are the most clear and easy listeners. Everyone can find a moment in their lives that they are reminded of while looking out a rainy window, and this is exactly the emotion that this song produces.


Wishing this was all a dream

And I'd find you sleeping when I wake

Looking at the rain

Feeling the pain

Of love lost running though

My brain




Cobwebs and Dust


My list could go on forever, but I will end with one final song from If You Could Read My Mind. Cobwebs and Dust is one of my favourite Lightfoot songs, which often gets me weird looks from my friends, but this song to me invokes memories of growing up in Newfoundland and the connection to folk songs and stories I have been submerged in throughout my life.


This was the first song I put on when I found out Lightfoot had passed. I was supposed to see him in 2019 on a tour coming to the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, NL, but unfortunately it was canceled due to illness. I wanted to see him perform in such an intimate setting, knowing that was where the magic of his music lies. I had conversations about Lightfoot’s health with many folks around the music scene and I had hoped I would get another chance to hear him live, but inside I knew that was probably not going to happen.


Cobwebs and Dust is something like a lullaby to me, creating this beautiful, relaxing folk melody. It instantly makes me feel relaxed and calm. The lyrical story of the song tells of traveling, leaving the comfort of home behind and exploring new lands and experiences. Growing up in Newfoundland, an isolated island on the east coast of Canada, I yearned to travel and to explore the world outside of my province, but coming home was always the most beautiful feeling. When the plane lands on the island after being away for a while, it creates such an appreciation of home and where we come from.


“Cobwebs and dust, cobwebs and dust

I hate to leave you but leave you, I must

Float through the sky, float through the sky

We been too long together, my cobwebs and I”


These were the lyrics that started the tears the night that Lightfoot’s passing was announced. It is a romantic stanza of lyrics that can speak to Lightfoot’s historic journey through music, and how even though he has left us, he will always be around us; floating through the air on a warm day, in the dust of old memories, in the rain drops on our windows, he can exist everywhere and anywhere.



This is the beauty of music. Music allows us to connect to artists while they are alive, but also allows us to revisit those connections when they leave us. Perhaps even see them in a new way, creating new connections. Musicians create huge impacts on the lives of fans, attaching their work to memories, people, and more.


Gordon Lightfoot, the storyteller of Canadian life, will always live in our history, in our culture, and in our hearts.


I hate to leave you but leave you, I must


Goodnight, Gord.


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