Gordon Lightfoot: The Music of the Song

[This article also appeared on the author’s webpage, A Curious Man]

You can blame him, you can thank him, but Johnny Cash is the one who led me to being a Gordon Lightfoot fan.

As a boy in upstate New York’s Hudson River Valley, in the 1960s, I spent countless hours listening to Cash’s music from an older brother’s record collection.

Come 1972, I’d been living in the middle of Wisconsin for six years, with much of my childhood sent to the attic, when I bought my first Gordon Lightfoot album, Don Quixote. (Johnny must have been lurking somewhere.) Then I started telling people about Lightfoot and made a sad discovery: I seemed to be the only one in town, in the entire state, and, as I came to believe, the world, who found Lightfoot’s music absorbing and enchanting.

As it was with Ennio Morricone, with Lightfoot, I was a bit ahead of the curve.

It may have been his name that caused resistance — “Lightfoot” easily translates to “Lightweight” to boozy barroom wags. It sounds like something cooked up by Henry Willson, the Hollywood agent who coined “Tab Hunter,” “Rock Hudson,” “Troy Donahue” and other 1950s beefcake monikers.

Worse, he was a Canadian who wrote “silly love songs.” His bold baritone voice could soar like a hawk or bounce along on high mountain streams of melody, but it may have sounded too much like the crooners despised by my generation as a tribal duty — Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr among others.

To those people, Lightfoot seemed as square as the 101 Strings. He couldn’t be taken seriously. And neither could his fans. “Burchfield knows shit about music,” they whispered. “Keep him away from the turntable before he plays the Tijuana Brass.”

But that was fifty years ago. Gordon is still kicking about and now there’s a major biography: Lightfoot by Canadian journalist Nicholas Jennings demonstrates that not only were the naysayers around me wrong, but so was I.

Lightfoot is workmanlike journalism, at times becoming a buzz of travel and tour dates. Lightfoot’s life follows the familiar track of other showbiz bios: years of hard — really hard — work, then fame, then problems with wives, other women, temper, addiction (in his case, the demon rum), followed by recovery, eclipse, then in his “Sundown” years, a revival as the world softens its scowl and even the grouches embrace him.

Most of this is interesting in a variety of ways. Lightfoot provides his own written accounts throughout and he writes very well. However, the book seems more for serious Lightfoot fans(or “Lightheads”) than general readers. What I found most interesting is how, even though he remains loyal to his Canadian roots, Lightfoot has traveled the world and hobnobbed with a remarkable range of people.

My outsider’s sense turns out to be false, as Jennings reveals the extent of the admiration and acclaim Lightfoot’s music received from his peers, ranging from Paul Simon through Harry Belafonte (who recorded four Lightfoot songs), onto Streisand and Elvis, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, Paul Weller (of the punk band The Jam) and, finally, Nobel-winner Bob Dylan, who’s said, “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”

Yeah, they laughed at me . . . but the guy on the right . . . .

Jennings also makes a good case for Lightfoot being a better lyricist than I even thought. I still smile at his witty turns of phrase in his very early songs, such as “Rich Man’s Spiritual,” “I’ll Be Alright,” and “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me.” Lightfoot now disdains the latter for its vile misogyny, but this cad’s absurd ode to his bad self remains a wickedly funny song, one you sing with a bad-guy sneer and a “BWA-HA-HA!” In these songs, Lightfoot shows a sharp eye for human hypocrisy and self-delusion.

Gordon and Johnny

As he moved along, though, the wit seems roll out as other themes rolled in (though it still peeks through in the classic “Sundown” line “Sometimes I think it’s a sin/ when I feel like I’m winnin’/ when I’m losin’ agin.”)

He wrote numerous protest and topical songs. Of these, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” “Circle of Steel” and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” (the unofficial Canadian national anthem) still sound gorgeous, as does “Too Late for Prayin’”, a tune now more relevant than ever. There are great sailing songs (“Christian Island”), road songs (“Somewhere U.S.A”), and of course, love tunes. (“Beautiful” now seems to be a standard at weddings all over.)

Lightfoot’s best lyrics deal with the torments and tangles of romance and marriage — (“cheatin’ songs” they call ‘em.) There is, of course, “If You Could Read My Mind,” the anguished cry of dying passion spun like a tragic fairy tale, a song torn from Lightfoot’s failing first marriage. By Jennings’ account, Frank Sinatra may have found it too much — he walked away from the podium in mid-phrase as Lightfoot looked on in the recording studio.

“Sundown” of course, is a classic in erotic paranoia. Digging down deep into Lightfoot’s large catalog, there glitter many other gems of romantic despair and domestic travail: “The Circle is Small”; “Talking in Your Sleep”; “My Pony Won’t Go”; “Can’t Depend on Love” and, especially, “Cold on the Shoulder” a growling bluesy folk piece about a guy accusing his girl of cheating while his own muttering suggests he’s no pillar of virtue either. All these songs — and others — are a delight to the ears.

Still, I believe song lyrics exist to serve the music, and therefore, they often fail to stand on their own as pure poetry does. It’s always about the music: the melody, the chords, the bass, the rhythm, how it’s all brought together, the feelings more than the thoughts. Any songwriter can stand for and against all the right stuff, but if their music isn’t all there, a career in electoral politics is a better way to move the world.

Jennings’s book lets Lightfoot’s musical side slide, maybe because the subject is hard to tackle without sounding like a pedant. I’m uncomfortable writing about music but stick with me while I give it a shot.

Because Gordon Lightfoot wrote beautiful songs, wrote them by the carload.

First of all, let’s stipulate that God granted Gordon Lightfoot with the gift of melody. With Lightfoot songs, the music is all there. At a time when musicians seemed to be running out of melodies, Lightfoot poured them out in a near-endless stream of buoyant, catchy tunes that leap along like a fast river, before bouncing and soaring to the mountaintops. He’s a hell of a crafty fisherman when it comes to hooking the ear. You can hum his songs all day long and not reach the end. For my low tenor voice — untrained and unskilled — his songs are accessible and great fun to sing. A couple of times I’ve been caught humming his back catalog and asked, “That’s a Lightfoot song, isn’t it?”

(I once sang a pleasing rendition of “Rainy Day People” to an appreciative crowd, but since then have found next to nothing in other karaoke catalogs. Lightfoot is protective of his work, so you never hear it in commercials, either.)

These melodies ride along on Lightfoot’s golden baritone, rich, masculine without overloading on testosterone. He could sing the contents of a sock drawer so it sounds like “Masters of War.” (One fair criticism is that his voice may be a little too good, the burnish painting over the anguish underlying many of his songs.)

Past those two well-known points, Gordon Lightfoot had another advantage over many of his contemporaries — he went to music school.

Lightfoot started as a choir boy, singing Franz Schubert, among other classical songwriters. In the late 1950s, he spent two semesters at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles (a famous jazz school, now closed) then returned to his hometown of Orillia, outside Toronto, with a firm understanding of composition, arranging and sight-reading. He got a lot out of his two semesters.

Temperamentally conservative, Lightfoot was no avant-gardist, remaining a fierce craftsman rooted in folk and country traditions, as inspired by Bob Gibson, and, most especially, Dylan. His songs are rigorously structured but somehow leap the fences of country-folk into the wider savannah of popular music. As he moved along, the music behind his songs grew more complex and sophisticated. (He once aptly called himself a “cosmopolitan hick.”)

Recently, I watched YouTube films and videos of his early live concerts (of which there are only a few). I noted how his lead guitarists (Red Shea and, later, Terry Clements), sets the capo far down the neck of the guitar, sprinkling high notes through the songs like raindrops. Meanwhile, from down below, the bass players (John Stockfish; and later, Rick Haynes, still with Lightfoot after fifty years), rumble easily along occasionally leaping up into the song like a trout before diving back down below.

Meanwhile, striding up the middle, pulling it all together, comes Gordon Lightfoot’s wonderful baritone accompanied by his own authoritative picking style, making songs that sound like honeyed sunlight.

You can hear this in Lightfoot!, his first album (with Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, playing bass), and his last for the United Artists label, Back Here on Earth, For the two albums in between, he took a spare approach with The Way I Feel (which Dylan claims as an influence on John Wesley Harding)and Did She Mention My Name? (my least favorite, in part because of an echo effect that works against his voice. The album sounds distant and thin, as though recorded in a large empty gym).

In 1969, he signed with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label and producer Lenny Waronker. The style grew richer, more luxurious, through three albums until 1972, when he released one of my favorites, Old Dan’s Records.

At first hearing, Old Dan’s Records sounds like covers of Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, plus a nod to Joan Baez. Except they’re all Lightfoot originals and they’re all terrific toe-tappers and hummers.

On this album, Lightfoot and Waronker layered in more musicians than ever before, weaving an intricate and rich warm bed of guitars and other instruments. It’s like Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” but without the muddy sound.

The album closes with one of Lightfoot’s best road songs, “Hi-way Songs.” His next album struts out of the gate with another swell traveling tune, a folk-rock waltz called “Somewhere USA.” The album is Sundown, a classic of the 1970s that still glows with expressive melodies, musicianship, and a rich sound like a honey-colored dusk.

While I like Old Dan’s Records more, this one is an absolute high point, reaching number one on the Billboard charts. (Side note: Sundown is the first time I ever heard a pop singer actually sang “shit” — twice, no less. For weeks after, I ran all over campus crying “Gordon Lightfoot said ‘shit!’” but no one cared.)

His subsequent albums became a little more electric and pared down. He never had a number one again but in 1976, he had a real surprise hit with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” a nearly seven-minute story song about the infamous Great Lakes tragedy. Recorded in one take, it feels a bit long, but thanks to Terry Clements’ spearing electric guitar and Pee Wee Charles’s sweeping steel guitar it evokes real terror and bitter tragedy. It may be one of most unusual top-ten hits ever.

By 1980, Lightfoot’s songs were still good to great and his dedication to music remained undimmed, but, as it does, the marketplace had moved on. Still, he had one more terrific album in him. That would be Shadows(1981) a gorgeous concoction that brings back that “wall of guitars” sound with one good song following on another. I’d pick the title tune as my favorite love song of all time, as, apparently, does Bob Dylan).

With nothing left to prove, Lightfoot has retired from songwriting and — it really hurts to say this — age has dimmed his voice, but he’s still with us, performing for a fan base that seems as intense as ever.

Fifty years on, the snickers have faded while I still say Gordon Lightfoot is a great popular songwriter. He’s as much a part of a tradition starting with Tin Pan Alley, running through Cole Porter and onto the Brill Building and Lennon-McCartney. There may not be a whole lot of deep-dish thinking, but so what? When you’re humming in the shower, or looking for a balm for your sorrowing soul in bad times, what really matters but the music of a song? It may not cure the world’s pain, but it can cast a light against despair.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon’s Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Originally published at tbdeluxe.blogspot.com on November 7, 2018.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.

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