Gordon Lightfoot died

May 2, 2023 • 8:15 am

I’ll begin this day on a sad note: one of the favorite folk singers of my youth, Gordon Lightfoot, died Monday at 84.  I’ll give the details from the NYT:

Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian folk singer whose rich, plaintive baritone and gift for melodic songwriting made him one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s, died on Monday night in Toronto. He was 84.

His death, at Sunnybrook Hospital, was confirmed by his publicist, Victoria Lord. No cause was given.

Mr. Lightfoot, a fast-rising star in Canada in the early 1960s, broke through to international success when his friends and fellow Canadians Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded two of his songs, “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me.”

When Peter, Paul and Mary came out with their own versions, and Marty Robbins reached the top of the country charts with Mr. Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness,” Mr. Lightfoot’s reputation soared. Overnight, he joined the ranks of songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, all of whom influenced his style.

When folk music ebbed in popularity, overwhelmed by the British invasion, Mr. Lightfoot began writing ballads aimed at a broader audience. He scored one hit after another, beginning in 1970 with the heartfelt “If You Could Read My Mind,” inspired by the breakup of his first marriage.

In quick succession he recorded the hits “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which he wrote after reading a Newsweek article about the sinking of an iron-ore carrier in Lake Superior in 1975, with the loss of all 29 crew members.

I came upon Lightfoot when hearing his debut album, “Lightfoot!”, in 1966. I was still in high school but haven’t stopped listening to its songs since.  Every song on the album is a masterpiece, and I count this as among the very best folk (or country; they’re hard to distinguish here) albums of our era. It came out of nowhere! At that time Lightfoot was a young man, impossibly handsome, and having unparalleled songwriting, guitar, and singing skills. Nobody else has occupied his country/folk niche since.

Here are the tracks, with all the songs but three written by Lightfoot. Note that there are only two guitars, Lightfoot’s voice, and a bass:

Yes, he became a certified star, especially beloved in Canada but popular worldwide, and produced other music; but beyond the songs above, the only ones I ever listen to are “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” (1967), “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976; see below), and “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970). (Note the NYT’s article, “How ‘The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ defied Top 40 logic“.)

I’ll put up a few of my favorite songs, three from the “Lightfoot!” album and then “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”

First, two of his own compositions, but I think you should listen to every track listed above.

“Long River” from the first album,

“Sixteen Miles” from the first album:

Finally, one of my favorites on the album: “Changes,” written by Phil Ochs. Lightfoot’s rendition is simple and ineffably beautiful:

Here’s “Railroad Trilogy” recorded at the BBC in 1972:

And a 10-minute bio with video, celebrating Lightfoot’s getting the Life Achievement Award from the Folk Alliance International.

Gordo is gone, and of course he’s not “resting in peace,” but he made a lot of us happy while he lived.

Reader Thomas, who informed me in an early-morning email of Lightfoot’s death, gets the last word:

Sigh…my world grows lonelier seemingly by the hour.  Like the last line of his Canadian Railroad Trilogy:  “And many are the dead men, too silent to be real.”

29 thoughts on “Gordon Lightfoot died

  1. What a beautiful tribute.

    My friends and I were GL fans during our high school years in Montreal. Listening to GL today brings back wonderful memories from long ago.

  2. Oh no!

    Thanks to nifty music subscription services, I put WotEF on my playlist a while ago after ignoring it completely for a long time.

    I don’t care if it’s overplayed – it’s great!

  3. This post is marked by tw1773r as “The following media includes potentially sensitive content.”

    Scroll all the way down and all the tw337s are there.

    .. are we still applying that scripting rule to The Social Media Site Which Shall Not Be Named? You know – Twi773r?

  4. Yes, very sad. In the late 1970s, I had a cassette of his best songs, and played it over and over. Funny how listening to certain songs will take you right back.

  5. It is appropriate that on the night of his death gale warnings were posted for Lake Superior. RIP.

  6. I happened to be classmates with his son in grade school, though I didn’t really know Gordon or his music. Eric and I teamed up to win a contest held by TVOntario by recording a parody of a song of our choice with our own lyrics on a science-related subject with Bill Nye as one of the judges, receiving a Mac for the classroom. No doubt his readiness for that task was inspired by his environment.

  7. Just finished listening, have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Thank you for reawakening so many memories.

  8. Sad news. I saw him perform at the Earth Day concert in Crisler Arena (Ann Arbor, MI) back in 1970. (I was still in high school at the time.)

  9. My older sister (hi, Deb!) educated me on so much music, including Gordon Lightfoot. My favorite song of his is “A Long Way Back Home,” which combines a rollicking tune with plaintive (yes, that word again) phrasing and lyrics that are almost Dylanesque…

  10. Saw him in Nashville in 1982 or so. My parents loved him so I did, too. Gordon is the same age as my dad. Not that that means anything. Song writers create the best music imo. Stories and poetry set to music seems to me to be more enjoyable than most of current music.

  11. Sad to read of his death last night. He was unsinkable, overcoming a number of health problems and still died at a good age. Canadian Railroad Trilogy and Edmund Fitzgerald are my two favourites because they are long-form ballads, not AM-radio pop songs at “two minutes forty-five” as Billie Joel (?) once complained about. But really all his work is great and that debut album you posted is lovely. Thanks for the warm tribute.

    Funny. We couldn’t build a transcontinental railway today.so there will never be another song about one.

  12. My dad always liked “Edmund Fitzgerald” as one of his childhood friends was on the crew, and that’s the first thing I thought of when I heard Lightfoot died.

    What a talent.

  13. Like everyone else in the world, I loved his music. And, like all Leafs fans, I loved that he was made an honorary captain of the Leafs.

  14. The CBC’s running a 2-hour tribute to him right now.
    Sorry to see him go. He certainly never rested on his laurels.

  15. Very sad. I had the good fortune to see Gordon Lightfoot several times in small intimate venues when I was a graduate student at UC Irvine. We were the same age, and he’s been a lifelong favorite of mine since then.

    Besides all his own hits, I think his version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” is the best one. Much better, IMO, than Janis Joplin’s–partly because, as a songwriter himself, he respects the lyrics (even though, as a Canadian perhaps, he mispronounces “Salinas”).

    He’ll be missed.

  16. I was a fan (saw him at Massey Hall in Toronto), and still listen to Gordon’s music fairly often. Nice selection of songs Jerry! I listened to all of them.

    Coincidentally I was over at a friend’s last week, listening to some Lightfoot and he was telling me about sharing a cottage on the same lake as Gordon, who had a place nearby. He said they often had to rescue ol’ Gordon who’d get stuck in various places on his boat. (He was more elderly at that time).

  17. He wrote and sang such wonderful songs. I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember. Time marches on.

  18. Sad news. BBC Radio 4’s Front Row quoted Dylan saying, “Every time I hear a song of his it’s like I wish it could last forever” and played out with “Sundown”. RIP

    1. Maybe that’s why I like the long-form ballads. They really do seem to go on forever. 🙂
      In a good way.

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