On an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving, Gordon Lightfoot is in an uncharacteristically reflective mood, sipping coffee and looking back on a career that has produced every kind of song imaginable: historical epics, romantic ballads, sea shanties, country ditties, folk-style protests and bluesy “toe-tappers,” to use Lightfoot’s quaint term for his uptempo numbers. Many became hits; many more are considered iconic, as quintessentially Canadian as a Group of Seven painting or Alice Munro short story. To say that he’s been prolific is like saying the CN Tower looms over Toronto.
Sitting in the kitchen of his sprawling home in North York’s exclusive Bridle Path neighborhood, the 75-year-old legend admits that these days his focus is strictly on touring and spending time with his family (a life-threatening abdominal aneurysm in 2002 kept him out of action for two years). The songwriting well hasn’t run entirely dry – his girlfriend, Kim Hasse, recently encouraged him to complete one unfinished song, “It Doesn’t Really Matter.” There are three or four others “on the back burner,” he admits, but to pull them together at this late stage, well, he feels there just isn’t time.
“It was a great run while I was doing it,” Lightfoot says about his compositional output, which resulted in an astonishing 294 published songs. “I was under contract for 33 years to record companies,” he says by way of explanation, adding “33 years” again for emphasis. “I had a band and a family, so I had a responsibility. When it was time to make the songs, I had to do that. Sometimes the pressure causes the job to get done, to keep things moving and make the next record.”
Uncommonly humble for a star of his magnitude, Lightfoot would rather talk about his live show and rehearsing his band for the 65 to 80 North American dates he still proudly performs each year than his songwriting gifts. He’s more at ease discussing that, and his work ethic, good timing and good luck.
“Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work. You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced.”
He never fails to credit Ian and Sylvia – who recorded two of his earliest songs, “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” and introduced him to their manager, Albert Grossman – with his good fortune as a composer. And he often admits that he had absolutely no idea that his masterpieces “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” would become hits.
But Lightfoot is undeniably gifted. The craft and beauty of his work, dating back to 1967’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” all the way up to 1998’s autobiographical classic “A Painter Passing Through,” has inspired artists from Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand to Bob Dylan and Judy Collins. Canadian songwriters have often covered his work, most notably on the 2003 compilation Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, which included Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Ron Sexsmith, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies and the Tragically Hip.
The roots of his craft can be traced to the Westlake School of Modern Music in Los Angeles, where, at 18, the Orillia, Ont. native studied orchestration and music theory. Returning to Canada with composition and sight-reading skills, Lightfoot launched his music career in Toronto – but took day jobs as a bank teller and a backup singer, dancer and drummer (under the pseudonym Charles Sullivan) to make ends meet.
Lightfoot’s first commercially recorded and released composition, “This is My Song,” appeared on 1962’s Two Tones at the Village Corner, a live duo recording made with his then singing partner Terry Whelan, a high school friend. But within months he’d released a single of another original song, “(Remember Me) I’m the One,” credited to simply Gord Lightfoot. A pre-folk, middle-of-the-road pop recording, it reached No. 3 on Toronto’s CHUM radio station chart. “We were aiming in a different direction at the time,” he recalls.