Golden Gordon

My friend Scott at Power Line, who writes beautifully and with such depth about music and musicians, tonight talks about Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot. In his post, “For Lightheads Only,” he discusses the phenomenon of Lightfoot’s popularity on tour maybe 20 years after he stopped charting songs:

I identify completely. I’ve been a fan of Lightfoot’s since I was a teenager. I saw him perform at Dartmouth, if I’m not mistaken, in the winter of 1970 right after “Sit Down Young Stranger” (as it was originally called) had been issued. I saw him again a few years back when he came through Minneapolis after the four-disc box set recapping his career was released in 1999. As I approached the cash register to fork over the $50 or so necessary to purchase the box set in 1999, the store clerk mockingly struck up an exaggerated version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Fool!
Llightfoot has written many outstanding songs in the course of his career, although the muse seems to have deserted him some time in the early 1980’s. I’d love to continue the discussion with readers weighing in on their favorite Lightfoot songs in the thread on this post over in the Forum. Are there any takers?

I hope Scott forgives me not posting this in the Power Line forum, but I’ve meant to write something about Lightfoot for a long time. Longtime CQ readers will recall that Jim Croce is my favorite singer, and Lightfoot reminds me of Croce in a number of ways. He has a unique voice, built for folk music but also for lush ballads, which can evoke so many different emotions. Lightfoot, like Croce, can take listeners from nostalgia to despair and back again through love, all in a vocal setting so intimate even on CDs that it feels as though he’s sitting in the room with you.
I’ve always liked Lightfoot, but I don’t think I really appreciated him until John McDonald at Newsbeat1 gave me a gift of Lightfoot’s music on a trip to Canada. I took the opportunity to listen to his most well-known songs, and not just the biggest charters. Songs like Canadian Railroad Trilogy and Steel Rail Blues reminded me most of Croce, with his evocative lyrics and wistful guitar perfectly complementing his voice, reminding us of days gone by. Had Croce lived and Lightfoot had not already written the perfect sea-chanty memorial The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, I imagine Croce would have filled the void.
My favorite Lightfoot songs, though, are the ones I have known for decades: Carefree Highway, If You Could Read My MInd, and Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. They all explore loss in one way or another; the last in obvious and compelling grief for real-life victims, and the first two for the end of love. Carefree Highway looks back at a relationship that failed, and the bitter lessons of not knowing what you have when you have it:
Turnin back the pages to the times I love best
I wonder if she’ll ever do the same
Now the thing that I call livin is just bein satisfied
With knowin I got no one left to blame …
Searchin through the fragments of my dream-shattered sleep
I wonder if the years have closed her mind
I guess it must be wanderlust or tryin to get free
From the good old faithful feelin we once knew

In If You Could Read My Mind, Lightfoot explores a relationship as it dies from neglect:
And if you read between the lines
Youll know that Im just tryin to understand
The feelins that you lack
I never thought I could feel this way
And Ive got to say that I just don’t get it
I dont know where we went wrong
But the feelins gone
And I just cant get it back

And, as a bonus, one can always recall Sundown, in which Lightfoot sings about a woman who defies categorization and both frustrates and compels him with her unpredictability. Like all of Lightfoot’s music,it’s complex and layered, and also defies easy categorization. He eschewed moon-June-spoon laziness and wrote lyrics that meant something and told real stories.
So I understand why people flock to Lightfoot’s concerts, even if he hasn’t ridden the charts for years. When you have a treasure like Lightfoot, you make sure you take every chance to experience him. It’s a shame that we have never had the opportunity to do that with Jim Croce.
CORRECTION: I didn’t check the lyrics close enough from Lyricsfreak. It should be “I just don’t get it” for If You Could Read My Mind. Thanks to Adjoran for the correction. Also, be sure to check out Gaius Arbo’s post on Lightfoot, too.

13 thoughts on “Golden Gordon”

  1. I completely agree. Lightfoot is a singular talent; a true poet with gift for melody. And that voice that aches with painful knowledge…I’m always happy to see other people share the pleasure he’s given me.

  2. You might enjoy Jack Semple’s new CD, which is a tribute to Gordon Lightfoot. Semple is an amazingly talented guitarist (and vocalist) from Regina. His website is at, and you can buy his CD from there or from here.
    My wife and I heard him play If You Could Read My Mind at a Regina Symphony Orchestra Pops concert and were blown away.

  3. If You Could Read My Mnd

    Weird, isn't it? Someone brings up a topic in the blogosphere and suddenly it's off to the races. So, I found this item on Memeorandum from Powerline about Gordon Lightfoot:
    Last week the Wall Street Journal ran Joanne Kaufman&#3…

  4. Captain Ed,
    Carefree Highway and Sundown are two of my three favorite songs, period. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, not so much. The words are fine, but there seem to be only two musical phrases over and over and over and over. That may be my least favorite Gordon Lightfoot song. There are many that I like.

  5. “And Ive got to say that I just to get it”
    I think it’s “just DON’T get it.”
    Lightfoot never fit into any specific category. It’s hard to imagine him getting very far on “American Idol,” because the critics and the public look to the prevailing formulas. He can tour on the basis of his body of work because it survives the passage of time, which defines the difference between “good” and “popular.”
    While I don’t see any of today’s artists in any genre necessarily passing the test of time, I remember well the nostaglia movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s which introduced me to the big bands and Sinatra. If some of the younger crowd give Gordon Lightfoot a listen now, they’ll be coming back in 20 years, too.

  6. Adjoran,
    The quote “I just to get it” came from You are correct about the wording.
    I interpret that song differently — the singer is still shackled by the love that his partner now lacks, and is fighting to regain it — an impossible dream.
    “The Best of Gordon Lightfoot” CD is on amazon for $8. An incredible bargain.

  7. I also have enjoyed Gordon Lightfoot. He has a very unusual and distinctive voice. Can’t really say which is my favorite song, as there are several, but always enjoy listening to him.

  8. here’s just something about a truly distinctive voice. Lightfoot, Cash, & Croce all catch your ear and make you listen. I also think Lightfoot and Croce excelled at the “story song”, a genre I enjoy.
    My favorite Lightfoot is “Song for a Winter’s Night”, which evokes sitting in front of a roaring fire with my wife at my side while the snow piles up outside. Given that I live in West Texas, that’s a hard image to conjure but Lightfoot manages it. Sarah MacLachlan covered the song last year, and she mainly served to make me nostalgic for the Lightfoot version.
    “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” is another I could listen to much more frequently than I do.

  9. “Song for a Winter’s Night”, “If You Could Read My Mind”, and “Circle of Steel” are three of my favorite songs of his.
    “Circle of Steel” sings of a poor woman drinking her life away to stop the pain of her impoverishment. As usual, he paints the pictures vividly in his lyrics.

  10. Many, many years ago, I had a girlfriend attempt to subtly “Dear John” me by mailing me a recording of “If You Could Read My Mind.” I say “attempt”, because I “just didn’t get it” and she then thought better of it … for a time.
    Kind of permanently spoiled Gordon Lightfood for me, which is a shame.

  11. Punk rocker tho I am, I’ve always loved Lightfoot.
    “Circle of Steel” is a great song – a band I had did a rock’nroll cover of it once, and it worked. I’m amazed that no grunge band has ever tried to cover it, actually – the structure is perfect for something like that. Anyway – gorgeous song.
    “Affair on Eighth Avenue” – baroque, delicate, heartbreaking.
    “Edmund Fitzgerald” – I love it. It’s “repetitiveness” is in the style and tradition of a sea chantey, which, if you think about it, is kinda appropriate, no?
    “Race Through The Ruins” – played differently, it could have been a great pop song; it had a great hook. Still one of my favorites.
    “Early Morning Rain” – best hangover song ever.
    “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” – I used to do that one at open stage nights. Love that song.

  12. “Did She Mention My Name”…guy talking about everything except the one thing he wants to know.

  13. I saw Gord live in 1993 and he was great-and the place was packed! Coinsidering that he hadn’t hit the charts in many years, that’s saying a lot. He’s a brilliant poet, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Canada someday name him their Poet Laureate.
    Favorite Lightfoot song: “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”.
    And for the poster who didn’t like “Edmund Fitzgerald”, the all-time best cover of a Lightfoot song done by another band was when NRBQ “played” Edmund by all lying down onstage and reading the lyrics. They then repeated the song a second time! This story came from a reputable source, namely NRBQ friend/fan Bonnie Raitt, who was on the same bill.

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