If you could read his mind

A conversation with folk music legend Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot

Most of the world doubtless knows Gordon Lightfoot through his run of hit singles in the 1970s: “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Fair enough.

But this native Canadian with the world–weary voice is considered a living legend for his early folk material (“For Lovin’ Me,” “Early Morning Rain”), a lot of which was famously covered by the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary, Ian & Sylvia, Richie Havens and even Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand.

 In the wake of the James Taylor–led singer/songwriter explosion, he became one of the top–selling exponents of tastefully–arranged folk/pop. Lightfoot was a regular guest on Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

Of the hundreds of songs he’s written, Lightfoot is most proud of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which uses the structure of an old Scottish folk tune to tell the true story of a bulk freighter that sank on Lake Superior the previous year.

He’d read about the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the tragic loss of its 29–man crew, in Newsweek magazine. In true folk–bard fashion, he pulled out his guitar and made up a song on the spot.

The single came one hair away from reaching No. 1 in 1976.

Now 71, Lightfoot is the recipient of 16 Juno Awards – the Canadian Grammy – and is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. In 2003, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Canada has even issued a Gordon Lightfoot postage stamp.

Lightfoot, who’ll perform with his band March 9 in the Johnny Mercer Theatre, is a survivor in every sense of the word. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, alcohol and drugs almost did him in, and in 2002 he lay in a coma for five weeks after suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Four years later, a small stroke left him without the use of two fingers on his right hand.

Just two weeks ago, a rumor spread that he had died. Several Canadian newspapers even reported it as fact.

Lightfoot is fully recovered – from everything, thank you – and living in Toronto.

It’s been a long and bumpy road. All things considered, do you feel lucky to still be here?

Gordon Lightfoot: Are you talking about the behavior that we exhibited in the ‘70s? I think I’m lucky that we’re even having this conversation right now!

I have a very strong desire to continue on. I have a wonderful orchestra – a wonderful band – and a wonderful show, I think. We get lots of people, as many people as we need to pay the bills, so they say. And get the tour around. Sometimes I worry a little bit about the fuel emissions. But we get around and do 70 shows a year.

Do you still have the same passion for it that you once had?

Gordon Lightfoot: Oh yeah, I really like doing the concerts. I recorded 20 albums in my career – that was pretty rough work and most of it was done under contract. That caused a lot of the bumpiness too, because it caused me to be isolated and cut myself off from my people and my kids, so I could work on the songs. I wanted to do it because by that time I was supporting a band, was supporting a crew, and had acquired two or three children. But I don’t regret any of it.

You’ve been playing guitar a very long time. Do you even have to think about it any more?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, I have to think about it a lot more since I had that little transient stroke. Because that really got me practicing hard. It took about five months for that to come back. It’s a good thing I have a good backup orchestra, because it sure helped a lot (laughing). You know, I really started practicing a lot, and I’m back to about 98 percent with the hand.

I practice just about every day, in the evening for an hour or so. I lead a fairly quiet life. Sometimes I go out to a movie. My family has two houses – they live in one, and I live in the other one, alone. It’s one of those kind of situations.

But the thing is, my tuning has improved. Because I’ve been messin’ and messin’ with it, and I’ve almost got perfect intonation. That’s one of the reasons why our concerts are sounding so great, and why we’re getting such enthusiasm out of our audiences. It’s unbelievable. It’s very gratifying to me.

I know you’ve lived in other places for periods of time, but you’ve always returned to Canada. What makes someone distinctly Canadian – “I’ve just got to be here”?

Gordon Lightfoot: I never had that feeling! I wanted to get a green card at one point, but I never did because I have so many relatives here that I wanted to stick around where my relatives were. So all we did was work with an H–1 visa, and I do that to this day. We just have to keep getting our petitions issued and get permission to go in there. And settle with the IRS.

I rented a place in L.A. one time, thought I might write some songs there, but it didn’t work out. I’ve always had a place to live here in the city, and I like Toronto. I love Canada. Toronto really is the center of the music industry here in Canada.

You came to prominence during the folk renaissance of the ‘60s, when Dylan, Phil Ochs, Ian and Sylvia etc. were coming around. Rock ‘n’ roll, as you’ve noted before, pretty much blew it all out of the water. But your radio hits came after that period, well into the ‘70s. Was there some sort of vindication for you there?

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, I felt good about that. But also, I got a lot of good cover recordings during the latter part of the ‘60s. It wasn’t like I was spinning my wheels, because I was getting recordings by other artists. And being quite surprised by that.

By the time I changed over to Warner Brothers, round about 1970, I was re–inventing myself. I was trying to take it into a realm where I thought it might sell somehow! Without going rock ‘n’ roll, without getting heavy rhythm. And believe me, I got nothing against rock ‘n’ roll, I’m just saying that at that time I just felt there was room for a ballad. At the same time, we had the Beatles in our face the whole goddam time, too, all through the whole ‘60s. They sort of canceled out the folk revival.

Are you saying that when the singer/songwriter movement came, around ’70, you were thinking “This is where I should go”? Is that how you “re–invented” yourself?

Gordon Lightfoot: Let’s say I was probably just advancing away from the folk era, and trying to find some direction whereby I might have some music that people would want to listen to.

You gotta think “How it’s going to be onstage?” I was always a live performer, right back to when I sang in bars and coffeehouses and lounges.

I had an opportunity to get with that company, they had a house producer – Lenny Waronker – so all I had to do was make basic tracks. And then let their producers go ahead with the orchestrations. We had some really good overdubbed music in there, too, by other musicians like Ry Cooder.

Have you ever tried to write a hit?

Gordon Lightfoot: Not really. I sort of felt I was on to something when I wrote the song “Sundown.” I said “This one here sounds like it might do something.”

“Sundown” was the example I was going to use. Merle Haggard told me that once he’d written “Okie From Muskogee,” as a joke, and it became a huge hit, he got out his songwriters’ tool kit and started trying to write stuff in a similar vein.

Gordon Lightfoot: I tried doing that a couple of times. I tried doing it once with a song, and I was taking the song around the country on a promotion tour. I kept pushing Side B at the time, and Side A – “Baby Step Back” – was one modeled after “Sundown.”

You must get weary of having to do “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Sundown” in every single show, when you’ve so many great songs.

Gordon Lightfoot: Sincerely, I love the songs. I really do believe in my songs a lot. I know which ones really work best on the stage. And fortunately, all those songs, they really work.

I’ve had other songs that they keep wanting to hear, which I don’t do because I know they just don’t work. There’s some kind of a redundancy factor that creeps into the situation somewhere along the line. I don’t like doing “Pony Man,” it’s an excellent song, I’m always getting requests, but I think it’s too long. It’s that simple reason. And I have so many other songs in a similar kind of approach and tempo to replace it with that are better, like “Sit Down Young Stranger” or “Don Quixote” and so forth.

I read somewhere that you don’t play “Minstrel of the Dawn” any more.

Gordon Lightfoot: I do! We play it a lot more than we have done in the past, because ever since we got our intonation right we finally started to zero in on getting a good, firm D chord. That took a lot of years.

I went to a Neil Young concert and I saw his acoustic set. And I think I learned how to tune my A string from watching him. I was picking up the tonality between the D string and the A string.

You don’t have to do this any more. What do you get out of it?

Gordon Lightfoot: I like the travel, I like the people, I like the music. It’s really an interesting way to make a living, I think. I really feel very fortunate.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is probably your most famous song.

Gordon Lightfoot: I think I found out what actually happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald. Just in the last couple of months, I issued a license for a National Geographic show called Underwater Detectives. The guy brought it over to the office and he played it for me on his laptop, before we would issue him a license to use some strains of the music for the final credits.

So what happened – it broke in half?

Gordon Lightfoot: It broke in half! That’s exactly what happened! So it was not the hatch cover.

(Editor’s Note: Part of Lightfoot’s lyrics are “At 7 p.m., the main hatchway gave in. He said fellas, it’s been good to know ya”.)

And there’s been a lot of controversy about that – at times it’s gotten quite personal, I tell you, it’s been very, very interesting.

There’s no hatch cover trouble involved, so a couple of guys are off the hook there. The mother of one of those guys, she’s worried about that for years. A lady called Ruth Hudson, her son Bruce died. He was one of the guys that was supposed to be checking the hatch covers.

Nobody’s ever come up with an actual reason why it sank, but when you see this show, you will understand why it broke in half.

Do you feel bound, in a way, to that story and to the families? You’ve performed at various memorials and commemorations over the years.

Gordon Lightfoot: I got to meet hundreds of people. We’ve been to all kinds of events. I’ve been three times down to the Mariners’ Church in Detroit – one Sunday I sang in front of 18 sea captains, all lined up in a row.

I know you’re very proud of that song.

Gordon Lightfoot: I’m going to be a lot prouder of it when I get that out about the hatchway – the very next time I sing it, I’ll tell you that. It wasn’t a hatchway. I don’t know what I’m gonna change it to, but I’m gonna change it.

I hope Ruth Hudson will be around long enough to hear it, because she’s 82 and she’s worried about that all her life. 

Gordon Lightfoot

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: At 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 9

Tickets: $49, $39

Online: www.etix.com

Artist’s site: www.gordonlightfoot.com



Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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