Tributes have begun flowing in for Gordon Lightfoot, who died Monday evening at the age of 84.
“We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on social media. “Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music – and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape.”
Lightfoot died at a Toronto hospital of natural causes, according to a statement released by his family. Weeks ago, his upcoming concerts were cancelled for what his family described as “health-related issues.” His last performance took place at Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg on Oct. 30, 2022. His final song that night was Rainy Day People.
“I hadn’t talked to him in some time, but the last time I did, he couldn’t understand why I would retire so early after only 40 years,” singer Anne Murray told The Globe and Mail. “He said, ‘We have to keep going, don’t we, Anne?’ It seems that he wanted to perform until the end, and he did.”
Neil Young praised Lightfoot on his website as a “songwriter without parallel,” whose “melodies and words were an inspiration to all writers who listened to his music.” Young said he had spoken with Lightfoot recently, and that he “seemed happy.”
Murray McLauchlan, another contemporary of Lightfoot’s, said he was “one of a kind,” adding, “He was quiet about it, but he was one of the most generous people around.”
The impact of Lightfoot’s death registered internationally. By Tuesday afternoon, songs by the troubadour took over the top four slots of the iTunes Song Chart in the United States: If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Carefree Highway.
Written to commemorate the sinking of a freighter on Lake Superior in 1975, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald earned Lightfoot a Juno Award as top composer in 1977. One lyrical passage from the 6½-minute epic was cited on social media more than once: “When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck saying ‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya’ / At seven p.m., a main hatchway caved in, he said, ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’”
A high school football-playing native of Orillia, Ont., Lightfoot was revered as a star who wrote about Canadian subjects and made his career at home while artists such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell moved to the United States. “He was the most fearless and determined voice of his generation who articulated the idea of Canada at a time when we were told and taught not to,” said author and musician Dave Bidini, who wrote Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972. “He gave us our direction like an old sea captain pointing at the waves.”
Lightfoot was a water enthusiast who donated the boat featured in his song Canary Yellow Canoe to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont. His love of the outdoors was evident lyrically. “The example he set with songs like Early Mornin’ Rain, Changes, and in particular for me, Long River, with its celebration of the beauty of nature, lit a spark in me,” said singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. “He made me want to do something like that too.”
Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy was inspired by Lightfoot’s choice to base his career in Toronto. In the early 1980s, Cuddy and Greg Keelor returned to the city after failing to land a record contract in the U.S. “He loved Toronto. He was that guy driving that big Chrysler New Yorker around town. He could have lived anywhere, but he chose to stay here.”
It was not only musicians who remembered the gifted lyricist. Author Stephen King tweeted that Lightfoot was a “great songwriter and a wonderful performer,” and Winnipeg-raised novelist Guy Gavriel Kay said Lightfoot instilled a sense of national pride as “a Canadian who sang about Canadian things.”
Last July at the Mariposa Folk Festival, Lightfoot was inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame. He was presented the award on stage by fellow singer-songwriter Tom Wilson, who on Facebook yesterday recalled being given the debut album Lightfoot!, the first of 20 studio albums, released in 1966. The album cover featured the budding star in a studio chair holding a guitar up toward the ceiling.
“The photo alone captured my young imagination,” Wilson wrote. “He looked serious, like he knew something that he wanted to tell me.”
Superfan Charlene Westbrook knew Lightfoot as a kind and giving artist who often spoke with her on the phone. “He remembered my favourite song, I’ll Tag Along, which he never did in concert but did a few times as a surprise for me.”
According to Westbrook, Lightfoot said his wish was to have his song A Passing Ship played at his funeral. “We have lost a one-of-a-kind legend who gave his music to the world. Fans will grieve, but we will remember that small-town boy who grew up to be Gordon Lightfoot.”