Those stories and that voice. Why Gordon Lightfoot’s music hit home for me and so many Canadians (2023)

Those stories and that voice. Why Gordon Lightfoot’s music hit home for me and so many Canadians (1)

Those stories and that voice. Why Gordon Lightfoot’s music hit home for me and so many Canadians (2)

Lightfoot’s gifts created devoted, decades-long fans around the world, but for Kenyon Wallace, the emotional connection — forged early — was even closer.

Those stories and that voice. Why Gordon Lightfoot’s music hit home for me and so many Canadians (3)

By Kenyon WallaceInvestigative Reporter

Mon., May 1, 2023timer7 min. read

updateArticle was updated 4 days ago

When I was five years old, like many kids that age, I was obsessed with trains.

Many a Saturday morning was spent with my father and brother down at Toronto’s Cherry Street railway bridge beneath the switching tower, watching passenger trains come and go from Union Station.

So intense was my obsession that my dad even made me mixtapes of songs about trains (this was 1985, before CDs appeared).

(Video) Gordon LightFoot Last Video 3 hours Before Death. He Knew it

One of those tapes had three Gordon Lightfoot songs with locomotive references: “Steel Rail Blues,” “Early Morning Rain” and “Sixteen Miles (To Seven Lakes).”

I must have listened to that tape hundreds of times while falling asleep at night and I can only assume that the stories in those songs, and the voice of the man singing them, worked their way deep into my unconscious mind.

As I grew up, I became aware that this voice was the same one often coming from the radio or my dad’s record player, filling the air with beautiful melodies and words that somehow spoke to me, even if I didn’t fully understand them.

Over time, it began to occur to me that many of the songs were about where we lived: the Great Lakes, maritime waters, rivers, streams, forests, mountains, autumn hills and even my hometown of Toronto. The way the words and the melodies weaved together seemed to paint pictures of the Canadian landscape like no other music did.

The songs were about us, too: miners, truckers, sailors, rich men, poor men, old soldiers, down and out ladies, fortune tellers and lovers, lost and won.

Lightfoot had that rare gift of being able to take the struggles, triumphs and emotions of people from all walks of life — our stories — and articulate them in a relatable way with a voice that, at its peak, was unmatched in popular music, in my humble opinion.

His was a voice that just seemed to always be there, accompanying us through life, a source of comfort and, in the tradition of all great troubadours, teaching us lessons about the hubris of humankind.

Consider the captain of the American steamship Yarmouth Castle, who left in a lifeboat as the ship burned with 87 passengers still on board while en route from Miami to Nassau in 1965. Lightfoot wrote about the disaster, still one of the worst in North American waters, in his 1969 masterpiece “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle.”

Or recall the tanks ordered by U.S. president Lyndon Johnson to go rolling in against Black demonstrators during the Detroit riot in the summer of 1967, resulting in 43 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries. The riots were chronicled by Lightfoot the following year in “Black Day in July,” a song that was banned by several U.S. radio stations for being too controversial.

Picking up the guitar as a teenager, I was immediately drawn to Lightfoot’s intricate fingerpicking style, the rhythmic, pulsating strumming of that signature, booming Gibson 12-string and his deceptively simple arrangements adorned by always talented sidemen. I voraciously learned as many songs as I could.

The Canadian singer-songwriter, who released 20 albums and was well-known around the globe, died Monday at the age of 84 after facing numerous health issues over the past few years.

Then there were the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics.

The Canadian writer Peter C. Newman once told me that he believed Lightfoot was, at heart, a poet. I’m inclined to agree.

Reading the lyrics of Lightfoot’s songs, one realizes that even if he hadn’t put them to music, they stand as brilliant works of poetry on their own.

Take this line from the 1976 chart-topper “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”:

Does anyone know where the love of God goes

(Video) Musicians pay tribute to Gordon Lightfoot

when the waves turn the minutes to hours.

Or this line from “Peaceful Waters,” the last song on his flawless debut album “Lightfoot!”:

The dead leaves of autumn that cling so desperately

Must fly before the cold October wind

Their simple life is ended

Must they be born to die again?

Or this line from the tender ballad of unrequited love “The Last Time I Saw Her” from his 1968 Grammy-nominated album “Did She Mention My Name?”:

The last time I saw her face

Her eyes were bathed in starlight and her hair hung long

The last time she spoke to me

Her lips were like the scented flowers inside a rain-drenched forest

But that was so long ago that I can scarcely feel

The way I felt before

And if time could heal the wounds

I would tear the threads away

That I might bleed some more.

I could go on. But you get the picture.

Listening to how Lightfoot married these words rich with imagery and feeling to equally beautiful and original melody lines was a revelation, at least to my teenage brain.

Now, in the mid-1990s, when I was in high school, Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t exactly considered cool. I often wonder where all the fans who are my age now were when I seemed to be the youngest person lining up outside Massey Hall in 1998.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 when I stumbled upon an internet discussion group of Lightfoot devotees from around the world — many my age — that I found my kindred spirits. The next year, a convention organized by Connecticut fan Jenney Rivard brought more than 60 of these fans to Toronto from as far away as Austria, England, Ireland, Australia and the United States, for Lightfoot’s four-night Massey Hall residency.

One afternoon, we all found ourselves at the home of Whitby fan Charlene Westbrook, profiled in the Star by my colleague Amy Dempsey in 2014, for a barbecue. Inevitably, the guitars came out and people from around the world who had scarcely known each other a few days before started singing Lightfoot songs for hours into the wee hours without missing a beat. Many lifelong friendships were forged that night.

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Before CanCon rules dictated in 1971 that 30 per cent of radio airplay here be devoted to Canadian music, Lightfoot managed to find the sweet spot between singing about our hard-scrabble land and commercial success, especially south of the border. He arrived in the mid-1960s when a national cultural identity was burgeoning in Canada and he found a way to incorporate what many felt into voice and song, without being boastful.

Indeed, it was Lightfoot’s reserved disposition and shyness that endeared him to many fans. (He was never known for his onstage banter; the songs do the talking.) His stage show was free of artifice and gimmickry generally; just a man and his guitar tastefully backed by a band of top-tier musicians. The audience always got the straight goods.

He was one of us, a small-town kid who conquered one of the planet’s most competitive businesses and, unlike many of his Canadian contemporaries such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Lightfoot stayed in this country.

When the song “Sundown” and album of the same name simultaneously made it to No. 1 on both the U.S. Billboard singles and album charts in the summer of 1974, Lightfoot was quietly managing his career from Toronto, his home since the early 1960s.

Here was a guy from Orillia who sang about the Rocky Mountains, the Plains of Abraham, Yonge Street, Georgian Bay and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, as well as the universal themes of love and regret, and was adored by millions around the world for it.

In doing so, he proved for countless Canadian artists to come that you could make it as a pop star without having to live in New York or Los Angeles.

“He sent the message to the world that we’re not just a bunch of lumberjacks and hockey players up here. We’re capable of sensitivity and poetry and that was a message that was delivered by the success of Gordon Lightfoot internationally. People were more willing to listen to someone from Canada because someone of such enormous talent had paved the way,” says Rush’s Geddy Lee in the 2019 documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” directed by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni.

When Massey Hall’s long-overdue renovations finally came to an end in the fall of 2021, the only natural choice to reopen the 128-year-old Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street was the man who since 1967 performed at the venue more than 170 times, the most of any popular artist. (Lightfoot had also closed the iconic venue down in the summer of 2018 before its three-year makeover.)

In one of those strange ways that life has of coming full circle, I managed to get tickets to opening night and took my 75-year-old dad, who got me started on Lightfoot in the first place.

Opening for Lightfoot was his old friend, the American folk singer Tom Rush. In another uncanny coincidence, my dad had included one of Rush’s train songs, “The Panama Limited,” on the same mixtape from my childhood with the Lightfoot tunes. There were goosebumps.

Then, in what was more of a love-in than a concert, for an hour and 15 minutes Lightfoot played us the carefully crafted songs that had become the soundtrack of our lives — tales about riding the rails, a soldier returned from war, life on the road, the triumphs and defeats of personal relationships, a shipwreck, the longing for the hands of a lover on a long winter’s night, and the pain of being stuck in the grass in the early morning rain, homesick for the ones we love.

To be sure, the face was gaunt, the voice weathered, betraying the toll of years of touring and the bottle. But the emotion, sensitivity and musicianship were still there. At 83, he retained the ability to reflect our collective experiences and make you feel as though he was singing especially for you in a living room full of friends.

We shall not see the likes of Gordon Lightfoot again. But the music he gave us — our music — will play on.

Those stories and that voice. Why Gordon Lightfoot’s music hit home for me and so many Canadians (4)
(Video) #TheMoment the Mariner's Church rang the bell for Gordon Lightfoot

Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email:

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Why did Gordon Lightfoot died? ›

He died of natural causes, his family said in a statement released by publicist Victoria Lord.

What is Gordon Lightfoot's net worth? ›

Gordon Lightfoot was a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist who had a net worth of $40 million at the time of his death in May 2023. Gordon rose to fame in the 1960s and 70s as a pioneering folk-pop artist.

What are Gordon Lightfoot's best hits? ›

Here are 10 of Lightfoot's most beloved and impactful songs.
  • “For Lovin' Me” (1966) ...
  • “Early Morning Rain” (1966) ...
  • “Did She Mention My Name” (1968) ...
  • “Black Day in July” (1968)
6 days ago

What disease does Gordon Lightfoot have? ›

What diseases does Gordon Lightfoot have? He has been diagnosed with emphysema. He also had an aneurysm in 2002 and a stroke in 2006.

How did Gordon Lightfoot break his arm? ›

Gordon Lightfoot is recovering after a fall at his home last week caused him to fracture his wrist. The “If You Could Read My Mind” singer-songwriter has been forced to postpone a number of upcoming tour dates after undergoing emergency surgery at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

Was Gordon Lightfoot in a coma? ›

That being said, Gordon did undergo surgery in 2002 due to a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. He even went into a coma for 6 weeks and it was unknown if he would survive. Despite this setback, Gordon resumed touring in 2003 and even signed new recording deals. He later suffered a stroke in 2006 but recovered fully.

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Loretta Lynn's Net Worth$65 million
Age:Died October 4, 2022, at the age of 90
Date of Birth:April 14, 1932
Birthplace:Butcher Hollow, Kentucky
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Mar 12, 2023

What is Loretta's net worth? ›

American country music superstar Loretta Lynn had a net worth of $65 million according to

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Most of her fortune originates from her extensive career in the music industry, spanning over 40 years. Throughout her career, Mitchell has recorded 19 studio albums, from which she has garnered over 7 million in record sales in the USA, as per RIAA. Meanwhile, in the UK, she has sold over 1 million records.

What is considered the greatest song ever? ›

2021 list
1Aretha Franklin"Respect"
2Public Enemy"Fight the Power"
3Sam Cooke"A Change Is Gonna Come"
4Bob Dylan"Like a Rolling Stone"
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Who has written the best song ever? ›

Best Song Ever
"Best Song Ever"
LabelSyco Columbia
Songwriter(s)Wayne Hector John Ryan Ed Drewett Julian Bunetta
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What song is considered the greatest? ›

Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' named Greatest Song of All Time by Rolling Stone. (WTRF) – Rolling Stone has released its latest list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and the Queen of Soul is at the top. Aretha Franklin's “Respect” topped the list as the No. 1 song, according to the entertainment magazine and website ...

What does burned in a three way script mean? ›

Here is the verse, again: "I'd walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three-way script / Enter number two". You are saying that, figuratively, it means: There is a three-way love triangle (A: the singer; B: his rival; and C: the woman of the singer's affections). So, A is in love with C.

How is Gordon Lightfoot doing now? ›

Gordon Lightfoot is currently touring across 1 country and has 16 upcoming concerts.

How many hit songs did Gordon Lightfoot have? ›

The discography of Canadian folk and country music singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot consists of 20 studio albums, three live albums, 16 greatest hits albums and 46 singles.

How tall was Gordon Lightfoot? ›

Was Gordon Lightfoot a sailor? ›

An amateur sailor, Lightfoot made annual canoe trips for years through the Canadian wilderness, including a 600-mile trek into the Arctic territories in 1978.

Why did Gordon Lightfoot leave his first wife? ›

Personal life and death. Lightfoot was married three times. His first marriage in April 1963 was to a Swedish woman, Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, with whom he had two children, Fred and Ingrid. They divorced in 1973, the marriage ending in part because of his infidelity.

What is Patsy Cline's estate worth? ›

How Much Money Was Patsy Cline's Net Worth? Patsy Cline's net worth when she died in 1963 was an estimated $10 million after numbers were adjusted for inflation.

How much money did Loretta Lynn have when she died? ›

Prior to becoming a country music trailblazer in the 1960s, Lynn raised four children in rural Kentucky. When she died, Lynn had a net worth of $65 million, according to

What is Dolly Parton's net worth? ›

'” That self-confidence has paved her way to financial success. In August 2021, Forbes estimated the singer-songwriter's net worth at $350 million.

What was Johnny Cash's net worth? ›

Johnny was one of the best selling musicians of his era and worth $60million (£51million) at the time of his death, according to Celebrity Net Worth, June, who was Johnny's second wife, was also an acclaimed singer and the couple released an array of successful duets together in their 35 years of marriage.

How much property did Loretta Lynn own? ›

She bought 3500 acres in Hurricane Mills, TN back in 1966 which would eventually become "Loretta Lynns Ranch". And while most stars live in privacy, Loretta Lynn offers her ranch out to the public, and has become a hotspot for camping, horse trails, and many other events!

How much money is Stevie Nicks worth? ›

Stevie Nicks net worth is around $120 million. She gained this net worth over years of involvement as the lead singer of the rock band Fleetwood Mac as well as through her solo career. Nicks is also the only woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, adding to her rich net worth.

How much is Mick Jagger worth right now? ›

What is Mick Jagger's Net Worth? Amazingly, Mick Jagger's net worth is over $500 million. He has amassed his wealth from songwriting, touring, merchandise sales, acting, and film production. In addition to his career with the Rolling Stones, he's also had a successful solo career.

Was Joni Mitchell in love with James Taylor? ›

In 1970, Joni Mitchell found a like-minded soul in James Taylor, and they soon started a romantic relationship. Both musicians were flying high artistically and saw life from a shared lens. Sadly, however, the relationship only lasted for 12 months before it all came crumbling down.

Who has the most 1 songs of all time? ›

The Beatles have the most No. 1 hits of all time: 20. Though unclear for how long, the Beatles still reign supreme as the artist with the most No. 1 songs of all time.

What song has been #1 the longest? ›

"Old Town Road" holds the record for the longest stretch at No. 1 with 19 weeks. It also became the fastest song in history to be certified diamond. "The Box" charted at No.

What are the most famous songs of all time? ›

The Top 50 most iconic songs of all time
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  • Hey Jude - The Beatles (1968)
  • Like A Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan (1967)
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Nov 23, 2022

What song sounds like Best Song Ever? ›

British boy band One Direction, shown during the Teen Choice Awards recently in Los Angeles, has been supported by the Who's Pete Townshend in a debate over similarities between its hit “Best Song Ever” and the Who's “Baba O'Riley.”

Which singer wrote the most songs in the world? ›

What singer wrote the most songs? Dolly Parton has written over 3000 songs. The country icon is known for hits like Jolene and I Will Always Love You, but Dolly has many more songwriting credits including having penned tunes for musical theatre shows, TV and films.

Who holds the record for most lyrics in a song? ›

Answer: Eminem. Detroit-native, Eminem, set the Guinness world record with the song "Rap God" clocking in 1,560 words in six minutes. Eminem rapped an average of 4.28 words per second in the track.

Who has sold the most music? ›

Perhaps unsurprisingly, British rock band The Beatles are top of the list for best-selling artists worldwide, with 183 million units certified sales.

What song sounds like If You Could Read My Mind? ›

According to Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon, the chorus of their song "Save a Prayer" was based on "If You Could Read My Mind".

What is the meaning behind If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot? ›

If You Could Read My Mind is one of his most personal songs, and is about the breakup of his first marriage - a theme he continued to use as late as 1982 (If You Could Read My Mind was written in 1969).

What type of speech is burned? ›

In US English, “burned” is standard as a verb, but both “burned” and “burnt” can be used as adjectives.

Is Gordon Lightfoot good in concert? ›

Based on 27 concert reviews, the critic consensus is that Gordon Lightfoot is rated as an average live performer.

What city does Gordon Lightfoot live in? ›

Lightfoot, though born in Orillia, Ont., spent much of his life living in Toronto. He cut his teeth as a performer in the coffee shops of Yorkville, once a folk music hotbed, and would later buy a home in the city's Rosedale neighbourhood.

When was Gordon Lightfoot's last concert? ›

When was the last Gordon Lightfoot concert? The last Gordon Lightfoot concert was on May 03, 2023 at Bell Park Amphitheatre in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Did Bob Dylan like Gordon Lightfoot? ›

Bob Dylan once named Gordon Lightfoot one of his favorite songwriters, and called the musician “somebody of rare talent” while inducting him into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986.

Why is Gordon Lightfoot important to Canadian history? ›

Gordon Lightfoot is perhaps the most accomplished and well-known singer/songwriter to ever come out of Canada. He is internationally known for such monumental folk/pop/rock hits as “Sundown”, “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Early Mornin' Rain”, “Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” and many more.

Is Gordon Lightfoot in the Hall of Fame? ›

Among multiple other honours, Lightfoot was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario in 2012. That same year, Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in a New York City ceremony alongside Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger.

Did Gordon Lightfoot pass away? ›

What happened to Gordon Lightfoot? ›

Gordon Lightfoot, the iconic Canadian folk singer-songwriter, passed away at the age of 84 on Monday. He was best known for his songs "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Sundown" which celebrated Canadian identity.

What did Gordon Lightfoot do? ›

One of the most renowned voices to emerge from Toronto's Yorkville folk club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot recorded 20 studio albums and penned hundreds of songs, including “Carefree Highway,” “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Did Gordon Lightfoot write If You Could Read My Mind? ›

"If You Could Read My Mind." Song by Gordon Lightfoot. Written in 1969, "catches the cadences of a hurt lover unused to words that cut too close" (Maclean's, 1 May 1978). The song has been recorded more than 100 times, first in 1969 by the composer for his LP Sit Down Young Stranger.

Who sang the Edmund Fitzgerald? ›

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a 1976 hit song written, composed and performed by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to commemorate the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975.

Where is Gordon Lightfoot's funeral? ›

A private funeral is take place in Orillia where he will be buried alongside his parents.

What surgery did Gordon Lightfoot have? ›

Although he became sober in 1982, Gordon had health struggles later in life. In 2002, just before the second concert of a two-night stint in Orillia, Canada, he needed emergency vascular surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Who did Gordon Lightfoot write songs for? ›

Artists who have recorded Lightfoot's songs include Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Sarah McLachlan, Barbra Streisand, Peter Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte, Jane's Addiction, Richie Havens, Glen Campbell, Toby Keith, Anne Murray, Nana Mouskouri and George Hamilton IV.

Why is Gordon Lightfoot important to Canada? ›

He defined Canada to a generation of young Canadians and indeed, to the world without bravado or American hyperbole. Pop music was the great delivery system for the values, the artistry, the politics and the attitudes of a new generation who were shaping the world in a different way than generations before.

What is a Lightfoot? ›

light-footed. adjective. light-foot·​ed. -ˈfu̇t-əd. : having a light and springy step or movement.

What does burned in a 3 way script mean? ›

Here is the verse, again: "I'd walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three-way script / Enter number two". You are saying that, figuratively, it means: There is a three-way love triangle (A: the singer; B: his rival; and C: the woman of the singer's affections). So, A is in love with C.

What does you've been on my mind mean? ›

If something is on your mind, it is preoccupying you, and you are actively thinking about it. (To preoccupy is to dominate or engross the mind of someone to the exclusion of other thoughts): I've got something on my mind. – Speak on it. You've been on my mind all day.


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