Gordon Lightfoot remembered  

Legendary Canadian folk music star Gordon Lightfoot passed away at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Monday evening, May 1, 2023. Age 84, he died of natural causes.

The singer-songwriter’s most enduring works include If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown, Carefree Highway, Early Morning Rain, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, and Rainy Day People.  

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr was born November 17, 1938, in Orillia, the lakeside resort north of Toronto, (the town where the Mariposa Folk Festival is staged and that Stephen Leacock made famous in his story sequence, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town), Ontario.

His parents recognized his singing ability at a young age and placed him in Orillia’s St. Paul’s United Church choir. As an eight-year-old Lightfoot started piano lessons and performed on local radio shows. “I did the whole bit: oratorio work, Kiwanis contests, operettas, barbershop quartets,” he told Time magazine in 1968. During his teenage years he taught himself to play drums and guitar. After two years at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, where he studied composition and orchestration, Lightfoot was for a time a member of the Singing Swinging Eight, a singing and dancing troupe on the television show, Country Hoedown, then began playing in Toronto’s Yorkville off houses, also frequented by Ian and Sylvia, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen, and in folk clubs around Canada. 

He formed a folk duo, the Two Tones, with a fellow Hoedown performer, Terry Whelan, recording a live album, Two Tones at the Village Corner, in 1962. 

This video depicts some of the highlights from these early years …. 

Lightfoot released two singles in 1962 (It’s Too Late, He Wins and (Remember Me) I’m the One that charted regionally, and his profile grew considerably when friends and fellow Canadians Ian and Sylvia, the Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul and Mary, with whom Lightfoot shared an agent, turned his songs – most notably Earning Morning Rain – into international hits. 

The following year, while traveling in Europe, he served as host of The Country and Western Show on BBC television.

In 1965 Lightfoot joined Dylan’s famed manager Albert Grossman, and this helped to land appearances on The Tonight Show, at the Newport Folk Festival, and at Town Hall in New York.

That same year, he recorded his debut LP, Lightfoot!, which included performances of Early Morning Rain, For Lovin’ Me, Ribbon of Darkness, and I’m Not Sayin‘. It was the first of 19 studio albums, the last of which was Solo (March 20, 2020). Lightfoot released three live albums and 19 compilation albums as well.

His epic story song, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to celebrate the Canadian Centennial in 1967. It describes the building of the trans-Canada Canadian Pacific Railway, the construction work on which was completed in 1885.

The success of If You Could Read My Mind in 1970 was followed by a stunning run of hits, including Sundown, Carefree Highway, and Rainy Day People. The biggest, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, in 1976, came after he read an article in Newsweek about the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. 

Gordon Lightfoot – The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald – Chicago – 1979 

Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind – 1971 

Many of his songs are best known by their cover versions. Bob Dylan included his own rendition of Early Morning Rain on his 1970 LP, Self Portrait, and Elvis Presley recorded the same song two years later.

Gordon Lightfoot 10 Degrees and Getting Colder live in concert BBC 1972

During the past 20 years Lightfoot experienced several different and very significant medical issues, although he continued to make personal appearances as his strength and willpower allowed. 

In 2019, he was the subject of the documentary, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, and around that time, he celebrated his 80th birthday with an extensive tour that concluded last October at the Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Lightfoot’s songs are poetic, and his imagery runs deep; deceptively simple, his songs fused folk with pop and country rock, and have been covered by everyone from the aforementioned Dylan and Presley, to Neil Young and Johnny Cash, to the Grateful Dead, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, county music singer Jimmy Buffett, and the Minneapolis rock band, The Replacements.

“I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like”, Dylan once said. “Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”

Also, Lightfoot had a rich, warm voice that often trembled with emotion, gave spare, direct accounts of his material.

John Pennell greatly admired him as a bluegrass singer/songwriter, musician and bandleader…… 

“What a sad day to learn of Gordon Lightfoot’s passing. One of the greatest songwriters of all time, no question about it. I saw him perform at TPAC here in Nashville, several years ago. A great concert and so many songs. So gifted with words, melody, voice and arrangement. Bitter Green, Fine As Fine Can Be, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, If You Could Read My Mind, Carefree Highway, Cold On The Shoulder, just getting started. A great, great artist always inspiring and profound.

R.I.P. Gordon Lightfoot. We will miss you, greatly!”

Jerry Douglas paid this tribute ….

“I learned the beauty of so many of your songs through another shooting star by the name of Tony Rice. You made the world a better place for my friend Tony, and so then for me.”

From 1975, while he was with J.D. Crowe & The New South, Rice recorded 17 Lightfoot songs, all of which were released on a Rounder compilation collection, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. 

Most of these, including the previously unreleased Whispers Of The North, were solo performances. 

J.D. Crowe & The New South – The New South (1975)

You Are What I Am and Ten Degrees (And Getting Colder)

Rice did a Lightfoot song with Norman Blake also….. 

I’m Not Sayin

Blake & Rice (1987)

and as part of The Rice Brothers …. 

Let It Ride and Whisper My Name

The Rice Brothers (1989) 

Tony Rice – Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

Song For A Winter’s Night

Home From The Forest 

Ray Legere is another who was influenced by Rice’s interpretations of Lightfoot’s songs …

“I’m sorry to say I never got to meet this incredible human being. I certainly love his songs done through Tony Rice, but have also played them with different bands on the east coast here in Canada.”

Some other bluegrass greats that have included their own renditions of his songs on record are….. 

Bill Emerson & Cliff Waldron – Early Morning Rain  

Bobby Osborne – Ribbon Of Darkness 

Selfishness In Man (OMS Records, November 14, 2000)

Alison Krauss & Tony Rice – Shadows 

for the DVD A Hundred Miles Or More: Live From the Tracking Room

The Isaacs – Peaceful Waters 

Lily (Horizon Records, July 19, 2005)

Tim Stafford didn’t know Gordon Lightfoot personally, although he did interview him once for Tony Rice’s biography, Still Inside. …. 

“However, I was a huge fan of his, especially his writing. The bluegrass world knows Gord’s work better than most communities because of Tony and all the classic Lightfoot songs he covered over the years. So many masterpieces — how many songwriters can you say that about?

It certainly helped that Lightfoot wrote often about topics that bluegrass fans identified with — nature, weather, natural spirituality, easy emotion… Tony covered classics like Ten Degrees, You Are What I Am, Shadows, Go My Way, Home From the Forest, Song for a Winter’s Night, Walls, Cold on the Shoulder, Early Morning Rain, Fine as Fine Can Be, Let it Ride, and many others — perfect bluegrass-related  interpretations.

But Lightfoot was a natural source for bluegrass material even before Tony — think of the classics recorded by the Country Gentlemen alone:  Don Quixote, Mother of a Miner’s Child, Redwood Hill, Sit Down Young Stranger. Did She Mention My Name, Ribbon of Darkness, The Circle is Small, For Loving Me, Long Way Back Home, It’s Worth Believing, Steel Rail Blues, Summertime Dream, Cotton Jenny, Old Dan’s Records, Sundown, and others have been recorded by artists like Flatt & Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, The Kentucky Colonels, The Stonemans, J.D. Crowe (after Tony), Seldom Scene, Alison Krauss, Front Porch String Band, Darrell Scott, Larry Rice, Dale Ann Bradley, Lonesome River Band, Claire Lynch, Chris Jones, Herb Pedersen, The Gibson Brothers and more. There will be bluegrass artists recording Gordon Lightfoot songs after we are all gone.

Truly one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”

As Stafford said, the Country Gentlemen recorded quite a few. Here is a couple of samples ….. 

Don Quixote 

Redwood Hill

Mac Wiseman was an early supporter of Lightfoot’s songs, cutting 11 of them at Arthur Smith’s Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, for his tribute album Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot (CMH Records CMH-6217 (1977)). Two of those tracks are … 

Cotton Jenny 

and Steel Rail Blues

Other bluegrass acts that have taken songs from the Lightfoot catalogue include Front Porch String Band · Go My Way 

Front Porch String Band – Rebel Records (October 30, 2011)

Chesapeake recorded Song For A Winter’s Night (performed with Tony Rice) for a live album Hook, Live & Sinker ….

(Chesterbury Records CR001 (April 19, 2014))

The group’s bass player and vocalist, T Michael Coleman, described Lightfoot’s songs as, “Life stories in three minutes.”

Lightfoot’s It’s Worth Believin‘ might be the emotional high point of Claire Lynch’s album, North by South ….. 

(Compass Records, 2016).

Alberta Bound was the first single on the latest Special Consensus CD Great Blue North (Compass Records, May 12, 2023)

The track features a cast of Canadian guests including Patrick Sauber; Trisha Gagnon and John Reischman (The Jaybird Trio); and Pharis & Jason Romero trading lead vocals.

Lightfoot more than any other singer-songwriter, personified Canada. His incredibly powerful songs about winter nights, morning rain, being bound for Alberta, and sailing on Ontario’s Georgian Bay came closest to expressing for many Canadians the essence of life in the Great White North.

Jason Schneider. author of the book, Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music … From Hank Snow to The Band, said, “What Gordon’s songs offered was this clear view of what it was like to live in Canada.”

Or as Canadian writer Jack Batten put it, he was a “Journalist, poet, historian, humorist, short-storyteller and folksy recollector of bygone days.”

Eric Gibson never had the pleasure of meeting Lightfoot. However, he is a giant fan …. 

“Leigh and I grew up two miles from the Canadian border, so we saw Gordon on Canadian television quite often. When Red Shea would play guitar on The Tommy Hunter Show, Dad would say, ‘He played with Gordon Lightfoot.’ The way he emphasized ‘Gordon Lightfoot’ told me that he was talking about an important man — and he was. We can all debate who the greatest songwriter of all-time is, but I think there is no doubt Gord has to be in the mix, and I have said many times that he is my favorite. He was a picture-painting poet. His music will go on forever.”

The brothers recorded Lightfoot’s Long Way Back Home for their eponymous Sugar Hill CD (2004). 

Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind (Live TV performance)

Early Morning Rain by The Tony Rice Unit (Bluegrass Life) 

Lightfoot’s music has multi-generational appeal with current stellar performer Billy Strings, among many youthful adherents who include his songs in this set lists. 

10 Degrees & Getting Colder – live 2019 …. 

Bluegrass supporter MaryE Yeomans sums up how many view his unique style …. 

“He was like no other. He had a clear, unpretentious style and wrote some great songs that have stood the test of time.

Rest in Peace, storyteller.”

He earned many accolades, receiving 16 Juno Awards, presented by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for top folk singer in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, and 1977, for top male vocalist in 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1973, and as composer of the year in 1972 and 1976; and he was inducted into the Canadian Recording Industry Hall of Fame, now known as the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, in 1986; into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1998, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. 

In November 1997, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, Canada’s highest honor in the performing arts, was bestowed on Lightfoot.  

He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour in May 2003. 

Then in 2012 Lightfoot was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  

Also, Lightfoot received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Trent University in spring 1979, and on June 6, 2015, received an honorary Doctor of Music from Lakehead University, based in his hometown of Orillia.  

He was nominated for five Grammy Awards.

Lightfoot was not keen on fame; often avoiding publicity, hated giving interviews and having his picture taken, and thought of himself as a songwriter more so than a performer. 

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, spoke for his nation ….   

“We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music – and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape. May his music continue to inspire future generations, and may his legacy live on forever.”

R.I.P., Gordon Lightfoot 

Members of the public ae invited to pay their respects at the St. Paul’s United Church in Orillia, on Sunday, May 7, 2023, from 1:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.