Lightfoot was a Modern Day Troubadour Who Held Up a Mirror to the World Around Him
36. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
There was no one, bar Dylan, who had such a prodigious output and consistently high quality of songs as Lightfoot for such a concentrated period of time. Between 1966 and 1982 Lightfoot recorded 14 albums of the highest quality, yet in the 40 years since he recorded only 6 albums, the quality of which paled in comparison with his earlier output.
It is in those first 16 years that Lightfoot established his reputation with songs such as If I Could Read Your Mind and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
First COVID took John Prine and now ill health and old age have taken the life of Gordon Lightfoot 84, one of the greatest singer songwriters there has ever been.
There were many minor talents who wrote and sang songs in the 60s and 70s, the heyday of popular music – Donovan, Don McLean, Cat Stevens, Al Stewart – but there were very few who could put out album after album with such a consistently high quality as Gordon Lightfoot, Canada’s national folk singer.
There are of course others like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Kris Kristofferson but no one so accurately reflected the society around them and Canada in particular as did Lightfoot. Lightfoot’s most famous song was also his first hit in Britain If You Could Read My Mind, a wistful song reflecting on the breakdown of his marriage to Brita Ingegerd Olaisson. The lines
I don’t know where we went wrong
But the feeling’s gone
And I just can’t get it back
Put into words the experience of a relationship that went wrong for reasons which many of us find difficult to explain or even understand. Yet the song also contained a barbed dig at his wife:
And if you read between the lines
You’ll know that I’m just trying to understand
The feelings that you lack
His daughter reputedly got Lightfoot to change the last line to ‘The feelings that we lack’ but by then the song had been issued.
The obituaries will concentrate on his most famous songs such as the catchy pop hit Sundown, which topped the US charts and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald about an iron-ore ship carrying 29,000 tons and more, which sank on November 10 1975 in Lake Superior after encountering a fierce storm. It went down with all 29 hands. Lightfoot changed the wording to reflect the fact that it wasn’t error by the crew but the overwhelming of the ship by nature that had led to the catastrophe.
Dylan said that his fellow singer died “without ever having made a bad song”, and every time he listened to one of them, he “wished it would last forever”. I disagree. Every singer-song writer has made a bad song and Gordon Lightfoot was no exception. But what was remarkable about him was how many good songs he wrote.
Dylan also said that “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.” Opinion widely varies on his top 10 songs so I have taken the Americana top 10 Lightfoot songs and compared it to Billboard’s 10 Best Songs before choosing my own top 10!
Americana Billboard Tony Greenstein
Top 10 Top 10 Top 10
1 Oh So Sweet Sundown A Long Way Back Home
2 If You Could Read My Mind The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald 10 Degrees & Getting Colder
3 Beautiful If You Could Read My Mind If You Could Read My Mind
4 Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald The Circle is Small Christian Island
5 Ode to Big Blue Carefree Highway It’s Worth Believing
6 10 Degrees & Getting Colder Anything for Love Sit Down Young Stranger
7 Old Dan’s Records Rainy Day People The Way I Feel
8 Minstrel of the Dawn Ribbon of Darkness Early Morning Rain
9 Summer Side of Life Talking in Your Sleep That Same Old Obsession
10 Early Morning Rain Dream Street Rose Did She Mention My Name/Walls Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
As you can see there is very little agreement! It is a luck dip as to which song one prefers. Eight of the songs I have chosen don’t figure in either Billboard or Americana’s choices and that is because there is such a wide range to choose from.
I have therefore chosen a wider 40 songs below that are my favourites. You will notice that my last song Triangle is from the last great Lightfoot album, Shadows in 1982. I am afraid that like Dylan and Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot lost the genius of his younger years as he grew old. However that does not detract from the high quality of his earlier songs. The decision of Americana to name Oh So Sweet from the 2020 album Solo as Lightfoot’s No. 1 is absurd. It is an attempt to pretend that Lightfoot’s output hadn’t deteriorated in quality when it clearly had. The song wouldn’t make the top 100, let alone number 1.
I hope you enjoy my choice. I would welcome your comments on my selection!
List of Gordon Lightfoot Songs and Links
2. For Lovin’ Me
4. Steel Rail Blues
14. If You Could Read My Mind
15. The Pony Man
16. 10 Degrees and Getting Colder
17. Go My Way
19. Cotton Jenny
21. Don Quixote
22. Christian Island
23. Alberta Bound
24. Ordinary Man
25. On Susan’s Floor
30. High and Dry
34. Rainbow Trout
37. Summertime Dream