Lightfoot!

blog Lightfoot photos 012Three houses. Fifty years apart. Two people. One great musician. Come inside.

Gordon Lightfoot, songwriter of such hits as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Sundown,” writes songs in total isolation and composes in big batches. Solitude is a must, part of his music methodology.

Owning two houses these days, he writes, practices the guitar and plays songs in one house while his wife and family live in the other. Isolation, Lightfoot’s key to creativity, must also be a killer. “Gee, honey, if only you could read my mind. Be back at sundown.” But it’s who Canadian-born Gordon Lightfoot seems to be, and has been from the start of his career. Liner notes from his second album, The Way I Feel, reveal him working alone for a week in a room of producer John Court’s house, perfecting the album’s material. The persistence produced a great collection of songs. But his very first album, Lightfoot!, released in January of 1966 – fifty years ago this month – is what interests me most.

The house I grew up in in Silver Spring, Maryland, was nowhere near Canada, no den of folk music, but – from time to time – entertained greatness. I’d already been educated by Bob Dylan and the Beatles from songs I heard over my family’s various transistor radios. Listening to Lightfoot!, a vinyl treasure brought into the house by my older sister and brothers, I’d never heard such personal ache set to music and lyrics, at least as our old living room Motorola stereo set could produce.

A moody kid, I related to the yearning voice in Lightfoot’s songs, as if he called out from a place of wilderness, the same place I felt somehow akin to despite living in suburban Maryland all my life. There was something that connected the two of us.

Where the long river flows
It flows by my window
Where the tall timber grows
It grows ’round my door
Where the mountains meet the sky
And the white clouds fly
Where the long river flows by my window 
*[From “Long River”]

Listen to that song! Listen to all of them. I really want to play music like this. I love Lightfoot’s voice, precise guitar picking and great songwriting. Mom paid big money last year in hopes I’d learn guitar and piano, but I flopped both times, opportunities lost. I still play guitar in my room, dreaming I’ll be good some day. I ache – is playing music pleasure or pain?

Now here I am with my hat in my hand
Standing on the broad highway will you give a ride
To a lonesome boy who missed the train last night
I went in town for one last round and I gambled my ticket away
And the big steel rail won’t carry me home to the one I love
*[From “Steel Rail Blues”]

In a Orilla, Ontario, grocery store one day, Lightfoot’s mother heard him singing to himself. So moved by his melodic spontaneity, she encouraged him with music in school and church. By twelve, he excelled in voice, choir and piano, even going on to a regular gig in a barbershop quartet.

I’m gonna buy me two wings of silver
Yes ‘n Lord to fly me home
I’m gonna buy me two wings of silver
Yes ‘n Lord to fly me home
And when I get my silvery wings
Then an angel choir will sing
I’m gonna get me two wings of silver to get me home
*[From “Rich Man’s Spiritual”]

I’m no good. Maybe I should quit. It’s frustrating having to figure out keys and chords, not to mention what key Lightfoot is singing in. Winter is bleak and grey. Alone in my room, light has abandoned me.

blog Lightfoot photos 001

Oh gal don’t you say goodbye
Now that I need you by my side
Love me now or be on your way
If you go be gone to stay
*[From “Oh Linda”]

Bob Dylan, frontrunner of the early sixties Folk Revival, inspired Lightfoot. As a result, his songwriting became more personal. In a Toronto club one night, he played the mournful ballad, “Early Morning Rain.” Folk group Ian & Sylvia heard him play it and became the first big group to record a Lightfoot song.

Out on runway number nine, big seven-o-seven set to go
But I’m stuck here in the grass where the cold wind blows
Now the liquor tasted good and the women all were fast
Well now there she goes my friend, well she’s rolling down at last
*[From “Early Mornin’ Rain”]

Our house has come alive! No one ever agrees on anything, but all the sudden all four of us kids think Gordon Lightfoot is cool. Time to celebrate. I can even hear rejoice in Lightfoot’s voice.

blog Lightfoot photos 003

Gonna buy me a long white robe
Yes ‘n Lord to help me home
I’m gonna buy me a long white robe
Yes ‘n Lord to get me home
And when I get my heavenly gown
And I lay my burden down
I’m gonna get me a long white robe to get me home
*[From “Rich Man’s Spiritual”]

Putting the Lightfoot! album together wasn’t all merriment. The New York City recording studio was sterile and unwelcoming – lonely – despite human companionship of an unmoved assistant engineer who assisted in recording the album by misspelling names of Lightfoot’s songs.

Here in this cold room lyin’
Don’t want to see no one but you
Lord I wish I could be dyin’
To forget you  
*[From “Ribbon of Darkness”]

I can’t read a lick of music, but what feels so good is how I can play any song on guitar by ear. And my finger pickings sound just like what I hear Lightfoot doing. I’m actually pretty good. But I also spend a lot of time getting to be pretty good. Over and over. Day after day. Kinda alone.

The way I feel is like a robin
Whose babes have flown to come no more
Like a tall oak tree alone and cryin’
When the birds have flown and the nest is bare
*[From “The Way I Feel”]

Two albums later, with a folk following of his own, Lightfoot has a band family to support in addition to his own back home. Responsibility is high. Pressure mounts. And the Folk Revival is dying. Rock and roll is taking over. Lightfoot must reinvent himself without going that way. There’s still room for ballads and romanticism without sentimentality, isn’t there? Boom, his fourth album, Sit Down Young Stranger, goes gold in 1970.

Oh may the light of freedom shine
For all the world to see
And peace and joy to all mankind
Through all the years to be
For soon the leaves will die
And the long hard wind will blow
May this world find a resting place
Where peaceful waters flow
*[From “Peaceful Waters”]

A song comes to my mind. I like writing songs. Each breathes its own air. It’s the boss. It leads me, I do not lead it. I must listen, listen carefully in the cold silence, for which direction I must go. Song – is king.

I can’t say I’ll always do
The things you want me to
I’m not saying I’ll be true but I’ll try
*[From “I’m Not Sayin’”]

Suddenly, there’s regular Lightfoot gigs on weekly TV shows, Midnight Special and Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert. But then a diagnosis of Bells Palsy, drugs and alcohol abuse in the 70’s and 80’s, a 2002 abdominal hemorrhage that left him in a coma for five weeks, and a small stroke in 2004.

This old airport’s got me down, it’s no earthly good to me
‘Cause I’m stuck here on the ground, as cold and drunk as I can be
You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train
So I’d best be on my way in the early mornin’ rain
*[From “Early Mornin’ Rain”]

In an 2008 interview with Matt Fink of American Songwriter magazine, Lightfoot said all his marriages were doomed to fail due to his need for isolation to write. Yet, as of today, he’s compiled 20 albums, 16 Juno awards (Canadian Grammys), Canadian Music Hall of Fame membership, and has had many of his songs sung by an impressive list of great musicians. Was all the work, the grind – the isolation – worth it?

~

I have to get out of the house. It’s time to go fishing.

As I drive through the beautiful forests in Bandelier National Monument on my way to fish near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, I slide the Lightfoot! song collection into my CD player.

Sixteen miles to seven lakes way up among the pines
In some hidden valley where the twirlin’ river twines
Where the fish swim up and down and the sparklin’ waters falls
Where the thunder rolls and the lonely puma calls 
*[From “Sixteen Miles (To Seven Lakes)”]

A tear comes to my eye.

Isolation isn’t so bad, at least when shared with Gordon Lightfoot.

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Many thanks to the following sites for providing additional information:  American Songwriter and connectsavannah.com. Check them out for more on Gordon Lightfoot.

*All lyrics from original Gordon Lightfoot compositions in Lightfoot!

3 Comments

Filed under Blog, The Daily Thought

3 responses to “Lightfoot!

  1. nice writing ! more LIGHTFOOT at the website:www.lightfoot.ca .Gordon just celebrated his 1st wedding anniversary on Dec.19 to the lovely Kim…another fan site with discussion board – http://www.corfid.com – videos/concert reports/pics etc. There’s also an Official Facebook site. https://www.facebook.com/GordonLightfootOfficial/?fref=ts
    Char

  2. Lots of fun; enjoyed this, as a fellow boomer. Hadn’t thought about Gordon Lightfoot in a while. Realized I really like his work. Say, read your previous post. Hang in there and keep writing. All we can do, right? Write on.

    • Thanks for checking out the Gordon Lightfoot piece and then my website more. As you can see from response numbers etc., I’m still new to the web world, but I keep writing and writing, occasionally entering works in various writing competitions. I appreciate the encouragement and look forward to checking out floridaamos this weekend.

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