On the news of Gordon Lightfoot’s passing, The Globe’s resident music lovers (current and former) reflect on his musical legacy.
Marsha Lederman: The sheet music for Pussywillows, Cat-Tails sat on our Mason & Risch piano, where my big sister, a teenager, would play it proficiently. I was a kid, very young. Once I learned to read music, I tried plunking my own way through it. I was attracted to the song in part because I coveted the pussy willow tree in our neighbour’s backyard.
Then one day, a revelation: I heard the actual song. Gordon Lightfoot’s velvety voice, that gorgeous string arrangement. Instruments as birds, painting the Canadian landscape. This is extremely embarrassing, but I took to dancing around our basement with a branch I would clandestinely pluck from that tree next door, singing the song. In my head, I heard it in Lightfoot’s voice, which had brought it to life in such a profound way.
Pussywillows, Cat-Tails is not my favourite Gordon Lightfoot track (that’s If You Could Read My Mind, hands down; the 45 was on regular rotation on my sister’s stereo). But it is the sound of my childhood. And a song that helped me understand that there is a vast difference between playing the notes and making music.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Erin Anderssen: Twenty years ago, for a Globe assignment, I knocked on Gordon Lightfoot’s door and he graciously let me in. We spoke for more than an hour in his mahogany-walled study, and he played me a lovely song that he was working on about a river of light.
But The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the one that stays with me, for so many reasons. The song tells the story of the sinking of an American freighter on Lake Superior during a gale in November, 1975, that took all 29 crewmembers down with it. The melody is haunting but the words matter more, and he took such care with them – even changing a line later when he learned that it was most likely the nature of the storm and not human error that that caused the tragedy.
Fact-checkers can quibble with other details, but this song, all six minutes, is about making sure people remember. As a Nova Scotian from a place that knows too well this kind of loss, and as someone who married into a family forever changed by a brave life claimed by the sea, my heart hurts whenever I hear it. Remembering is honouring, and that’s the gift the song will always give.
Did She Mention My Name
John Ibbitson: In the late 1960s, the Muskoka Boys Choir put on a concert of Lightfoot songs at the Gravenhurst Opera House. I had a fine voice then – I soon lost it – and sang Did She Mention My Name.
Lightfoot was in the audience (Gravenhurst is not far from Orillia, his hometown) and came backstage afterward. He liked my take on the song, and said he’d sung in choirs too, starting out. He wished me luck and then moved on to talk with the other boys. Being praised by Gordon Lightfoot after singing one of his songs is a special moment of my life.
Song for a Winter’s Night
Menaka Raman-Wilms: I learned to sing Song for a Winter’s Night in my music lessons when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was still learning how to think about performing, and I remember how I went through each verse with my singing teacher, line by line, trying to figure out what they meant and how I could use my own emotions to give them meaning. I remember working to picture a lamp on a wooden table in a small dark room, or what it would be like to look out a window with snow draped over it like cobwebs. The lyrics were so precise and so evocative. I loved to sing the chorus: the way it built slowly, the way it made me feel lonely and sad but somehow hopeful at the same time.
I didn’t hear Gordon Lightfoot’s version of the song until years later. It was softer than how I knew it, somehow more intimate. It showed me how just very personal the song was.
I came back to the song many times over the years. I performed it at Christmas concerts, and one time in front of a small group of friends on the shores of Lake Superior. Still to this day, it’s one of my favourite songs to sing.
Canadian Railroad Trilogy
Judith Pereira: I came to Canada when I was 15 but it was only when I headed to Edmonton in my early 20s – like many others I went West for work – that I first heard Gord. It was the Canadian Railroad Trilogy and I played it on repeat on my drive on the Yellowhead Trail into Edmonton. I remember Gord singing in that smooth voice:
And when the young man’s fancy was turned into the spring
The railroad men grew restless for to hear the hammers ring
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day
And many a fortune lost and won and many a debt to pay
I, too, understood what it was like to be living across the country trying to make your way. Every verse spoke to me, and as I watched the dawn come up on my drive to work or sink back down on my drives home, I felt a connection to this land:
Behind the blue Rockies the sun is declinin’
The stars they come stealin’ at the close of the day
Across the wide prairies our loved ones lie sleeping
Beyond the dark ocean in a place far away
Gord’s music was always with me no matter where I went: Vancouver, Iqaluit, Ottawa, Toronto and the long drives through the Rockies and along the Dempster Highway. He spoke of stretches of sky and the wonders of the Great Lakes; he helped me understand what it meant to be part of it.
So over the mountains and over the plains
Into the Muskage and into the rain
Up to St. Lawrence on the way to Gaspé
Swingin’ our hammers and drawin’ our pay
Greg Keenan: Restless, from the 1993 album Waiting for You, came long after Lightfoot’s glory days of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But as such a fan of his music (since first hearing him when I was a rookie usher at Massey Hall in 1972) that I saw him in concert almost 200 times, I rank Restless among Lightfoot’s best.
The imagery in the song, about a changing season, is striking, immediate and accessible. “As we gaze off in the distance through the trees in my backyard” – after hearing that lyric, you can think of all the times you have done that. It’s one of his gifts, that he wrote lyrics everyone could relate to. Here’s another line from Restless, the chorus of which changes slightly each time: “an old engine flyin’ down a road that’s ironcast.” Those words again almost instantly create a picture in my mind, but also take the listener back to Canadian Railroad Trilogy – his finest work – and Steel Rail Blues, from his first album.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, The Patriot’s Dream and his other epic ballads are, of course, evocative. But so are his lesser-known songs – and you don’t even have to listen carefully.
Summer Side of Life
I’ve been listening to Gordon Lightfoot since forever. Summer Side of Life is the song that hits hardest. It was written in 1971, so it might have been influenced by the Vietnam war. The sadness pours out in an amazing chorus. I love it.