Inspired by Bob Dylan and Ian Tyson, Lightfoot soon switched gears and began writing the more poetic, folk-flavored material that made him famous. “Early Morning Rain” came about when he thought back to his poor, homesick student days in Los Angeles, watching big 707s taking off at the airport.
Lightfoot drew from advice he received from Harold Moon, then head of BMI Canada, one of the forerunners of SOCAN, who told him that songs are a good marriage between lyric and melody. “Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work,” says Lightfoot, matter-of-factly. “You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced that has some kind of poetic drift to it, and put it into a lyric. And you try to do that in different ways with each song.”
Along with writing to deadlines brought on by recording contracts, Lightfoot has delivered some of his most memorable songs from commissions. “Steel Rail Blues” was one of several numbers he wrote for a Canadian National Railway film. When the CBC asked him to write a song about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he researched the subject by reading a book by Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, the railroad’s chief engineer. The result was his now classic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” for which he wrote the slow middle part first and then wrote the start and end portions around it.
“When I was in the bush, the last thing I thought about was songwriting. All I thought about was making 20 miles a day.”
Curiously, although many of Lightfoot’s songs are closely associated with the Canadian landscape, few have been written in those settings. His 10 marathon canoe trips across northern Canada, which he started making during the 1970s (he made his last one in 1986), have produced only a few geographically specific songs, including “Whispers of the North” and “Canary Yellow Canoe.”
“When I was in the bush, the last thing I thought about was songwriting,” Lightfoot explains. “All I thought about was making 20 miles a day. You can’t take a guitar or anything. With all the rapids and big lakes to paddle through, it’s very challenging.”
Yet to compose, Lightfoot requires total isolation – something he says has been hard on his marriages and family. One solution he found in the past was to write in empty houses, taking advantage of homes that real estate agents he knew were trying to sell. That’s how “If You Could Read My Mind” came about. “It was one of those fast ones,” he recalls. “It happened in an afternoon in an empty house. I had a desk and a chair, a pad of paper and my guitar. I just had to go for it.” Lightfoot wrote “Sundown,” his popular song about infidelity and jealousy, when he was alone in a farmhouse outside of Toronto and his girlfriend was partying at a city nightclub without him.
At Lightfoot’s current home, his office is filled with dark floor-to-ceiling bookcases that hold notebooks of every set he’s ever played. A stickler for detail, Lightfoot lists the date, venue and running times as well as tape recordings of all shows. A cassette player serves to record song ideas, while a yellow legal pad on a music stand contains lyrics, chords and annotations for various compositions. From his vast body of work, he draws from 50 songs for his concert repertoire.
“We rotate them in our live show,” Lightfoot explains. “It’s like rotating pitchers in a baseball game. I have to keep changing it up to keep it fresh, but you can’t lose your standards either. that includes the ballads, all the ethereal stuff, plus the toe-tappers, of course.”
He adds, “There’s a feeling that takes place [at concerts] that keeps me moving. It’s what makes me want to continue. As long as we stay organized and healthy, we can keep going.”
Publisher: Moose Music, Early Morning Music
Selected Discography: Lightfoot! (1966), Sundown (1974), East of Midnight (1986), Waiting for You (1993), Harmony (2004)
CAPAC Member 1970-1990. SOCAN member since 1991.