Gordon Lightfoot wrote and sang about the vast natural spaces of Canada for more than 60 years. His passing at the age of 84 this week leaves a kind of expanse of its own. Lightfoot’s legacy is not only his devotion to self-imposed standards of creation but also the way he overcame seemingly insurmountable personal barriers. He possessed songwriting powers and a resolve for enduring setbacks that allowed for the creation of a remarkable body of work.
Lightfoot was a distinctive songwriter in an age of mass music, and his contemporaries often expressed their respect for the timelessness of his work. He created myths in his songs, most famously in “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” (1967), in which the wilderness itself becomes a character in the song’s condensed drama of endurance in stark conditions. Lightfoot became a figure of mythology in Canada, too — a troubadour and Romantic who publicly inhabited the artistic world that he created.
Lightfoot created songs that became examples of form in the manner to which a sculptor or builder of fine furniture might aspire. The songs didn’t seem to age the way many products of popular culture do. Like a sculpture or handmade table, Lightfoot’s songs have given rise to renewed appreciation as time has passed.
Lightfoot’s devotion to craft helps to explain the continuous admiration that was expressed by singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan. On his most recent visit to Edmonton’s Jubilee Auditorium in 2021, Dylan responded to an impromptu suggestion from the audience by singing Lightfoot’s “Shadows” (1982) — by heart and without rehearsal.
For guidance in his work, Lightfoot turned to the songwriters of the past who described the experience of living in their context while offering universal themes that would appeal widely. From a young age, he said he was a “fan” of Stephen Foster, the 19th-century master songwriter from the U.S. south. Both Foster and Lightfoot devoted their art to taste, craftsmanship, and the animation in song of folklore and legend. Their songbooks were equally impressive. One could imagine that for each song that Foster wrote, such as “Old Folks at Home,” Lightfoot would write “Rainy Day People” (1975). For Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” Lightfoot could create “Bitter Green” (1968).
In the example of his life, and particularly his work ethic, Lightfoot expressed the value of persevering in response to illness and debilitation. His first public performance was at 12 years of age at St. Paul’s United Church in his hometown of Orillia, Ont. In 2017, the choir at the church created a multimedia performance, available online, in which the young Lightfoot is heard in a recording singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” with an image of the child-singer hovering above the choir.
From that age, Lightfoot overcame personal barriers repeatedly to allow him to continue to sing and record for more than six decades. He was not always inclined to talk about the details of these experiences. But in interviews about his life, he spoke of singing himself to sleep as a child, slipping into a state of perpetual depression in adolescence, and the ecstasy of musical expression.
He gave up drinking in 1982 after warnings from his record label. Spending extended periods in the Canadian wilderness was part of his recovery regimen in the 1980s, giving rise to songs such as, “Canary Yellow Canoe” (1999). He recovered in 2002 from an illness that, by his report, came close to taking his life. His last performance in Edmonton was in October 2022.
The themes of the majesty of nature, the nobility of love, and the consequences of hubris sustained the life of Lightfoot’s songs. They have become part of Canadian mythology and of the cultural memories of so many Canadians. The songs have the potential to remain important to new generations of listeners.
How will this happen? Perhaps future generations will recall standing on the stage of the school auditorium or in the community hall, singing beautiful songs by Gordon Lightfoot such as, “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970) and, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976).
Marco Adria is the author of Music of Our Times: Eight Canadian Singer-Songwriters (Toronto: Lorimer).
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