Music Friday: Happy Birthday, Gordon Lightfoot!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Singer/songwriter Gordon Lighfoot with his guitar

Gordon Lightfoot was born on November 17, 1938. Lightfoot is a Canadian singer/songwriter whose songs have been recorded by dozens of artists, and who is best known for a string of hit records in the 1970s.

By the time he was in high school, Lightfoot was already performing concerts in central Ontario. He studied composition and orchestration in college, and got some early exposure on Canadian TV, performing regularly on the CBC's Country Hoedown. In 1963, he spent a year in England, hosting a country music hour for BBC television. When he returned to Canada, he quickly became a popular songwriter. One of his first successes, "Early Morning Rain," was recorded by a wide variety of singers, including Chad & Jeremy, We Five, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and the Kingston Trio.

By the time his first album, Lightfoot!, was released in 1966, several of its songs, including "For Lovin' Me" and "Ribbon of Darkness" were already fairly well known from recordings by other singers. Lightfoot got more attention in early 1967 with his "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a song commissioned by the CBC as part of its celebration of Canada's centennial; the song told the story of the construction of the first trans-Canadian railway in the 1880s.

Lightfoot's first significant attention as a performer in the United States was, unfortunately, of a sort that didn't much help his career. The 1968 single "Black Day in July," about the 1967 Detroit riots was beginning to get airplay at US radio when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; radio stations in several states stopped playing the song, fearing that it would contribute to an already tense atmosphere.

4 Gordon Lightfoot album covers

The 1970 album Sit Down Young Stranger was a major turning point for Lightfoot, though it didn't look like one at first. The album had been out for nearly a year, and wasn't selling very well. But when one of its songs suddenly took off at radio in both Canada and US, the album was re-issued with that song's name as its new title: If You Could Read My Mind. The song became a pop standard, recorded by (among many others) Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Vikki Carr, and Mark Lindsay.

Lightfoot was a regular presence on the charts for the next five years, with songs including "Sundown" (his only #1 hit in the US) and "Rainy Day People." His 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was based on an actual maritime tragedy. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter that was lost in a storm on Lake Superior in November 1975; all 29 members of the crew were lost. Lightfoot has taken the responsibility of this song very seriously, occasionally making small changes to the lyrics as new details of the disaster came to light. He was once asked for permission to use the song in a television show, and said he would only agree if the families of all 29 crew members gave their consent.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was Lightfoot's last major hit in the US, but he continued to record for another 20 years, and has remained a major figure in Canada; in 1988, he took part in the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.

Lightfoot had several surgeries after an abdominal aneurysm in 2002, and was in a coma for six weeks. It took about two years for him to recover sufficiently that he could perform again, and he still tours and performs regularly. He has not recorded any new music for several years, though; his most recent album, Harmony, was released in 2004, but most of it was recorded before his 2002 illness.

In addition to the albums linked above, most of Lightfoot's albums are available for streaming at Hoopla; Songbook is a large overview of his career that includes all of his major hits. Bluegrass musician Mac Wiseman recorded a Lightfoot tribute album in 1977, and the 2003 album Beautiful features a cast of (mostly) Canadian musicians singing their favorite Lightfoot songs.