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.