“I’m 82 years of age now. That feels very important to me. If health permits, I’m happy just to be able to continue to perform in one way or another,” says folk-rock legend Gordon Lightfoot, calling from his Toronto home. Even during this pandemic, he has continued to work, performing a livestream concert last December, with more shows planned down the line. “Doing these streams, it’s a challenge, and it’s fun to do them,” he says.
Lightfoot found a clever way around the common complaint that many artists have had about the unsettling silence that descends between songs during streams—he had his soundman drop in applause sound effects. “It’s kind of funny when you actually think about it,” he says with a laugh. “It was my own idea to bring it in, and it works really well because it makes it sound like you’ve got a club-sized crowd in there.”
During that concert—as with the thousands of shows Lightfoot has done since the 1960s, including right up until the COVID-19 pandemic forced him off the road last year—he has made sure to play his many hits, including “Sundown,” “Early Morning Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “For Lovin’ Me,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and many more.
“Out of my repertoire, which is about 230 [songs], I have 45 that I have complete faith in them,” Lightfoot says. “So what we do is just review the basic standards, and I can rotate all the material that goes around that, well-known album cuts and all that sort of thing, and I choose from that.”
Even after playing some of these songs for more than 50 years now, Lightfoot says he still hasn’t grown tired of them: “If it’s the kind of tunes that really work well, you really do not get bored with playing it. ‘If You Could Read My Mind,’ every time I sing it, it’s different—and I don’t know why this should be. You have that kind of faith and trust in your material, and it comes from going right back into the early ‘70s. They’ve stood the test of time.”
That is certainly a justifiable claim. Lightfoot has often been called “Canada’s greatest songwriter”—though he is modest when asked about this status, choosing to shift attention onto other artists instead. “There’s thousands of great songwriters—don’t forget about Jimmy Webb and Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Kris Kristofferson,” he says. “Basically, I wanted to be like Dylan. I wanted to write my own material—that’s exactly what he’s done throughout his whole career, I wanted to copy his model and write my own stuff, so that was the way I went.”
Lightfoot has succeeded in that goal, releasing 21 studio albums so far (most recently in 2020, with Solo). His songwriting process, he says, “is always kind of hard to describe, but it seems that I get working on a chord progression. Just a few chords on the guitar really is all you need. Once I’ve got a chord progression working, there’s always a way to get a melody to go with that. And if you can find some kind of an idea within yourself—some of it’s personal, some of it’s conjecture, some of it’s just right off the top of your head, the product of the imagination—something will occur that might become like getting a marriage between the melody and the lyric.”
Lightfoot says he knew he wanted to become a professional musician from a very early age as he was growing up in Orillia, a town about 80 miles north of Toronto. “I got it in my head that I wanted to do it as a child,” he says. “I started singing very, very early, like perhaps when I was ten or eleven years old, so my folks got me involved in the church choir and I got trained there.”
Besides church, Lightfoot also drew musical inspiration from what he was hearing on the radio. “There’s a list a mile long if people that I listened to through the years,” he says. “I was listening to Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, and Frank Sinatra. And country artists, as well—Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. Then the folk revival began and I started listening to Pete Seeger and John Denver and the Kingston Trio.”
Lightfoot began writing his own songs when he was seventeen years old. Amused, he recalls his first stab at the craft: “It was about a fad. It was about the hula hoop. That’s what it was called: “The Hula Hoop Song.” I didn’t know what to do with it, so I took it to a publisher. I was very adventurous. I was very entrepreneurial. I borrowed my dad’s car and I drove to Toronto.”
Once he got to the publisher’s office, Lightfoot encountered rejection—and encouragement. “They said, ‘We can’t do anything with it right now. We’re pedaling mostly love songs and things to do with people’s emotions, and this is kind of a topical song. But don’t stop. Keep doing it.’ And I did. I sent them more stuff,” he says.
After high school, Lightfoot attended music school for a year, which he says was “Very helpful to me. It taught me how to write music, because at that point I’d had some piano training but could not physically write music—and in those days, you had to know how to write it down. I did it professionally for other people, too. I could lift the songs off tape and put them on a manuscript.”
Deciding to play folk rock, Lightfoot played the Toronto club circuit and soon earned a reputation for being such a stellar songwriter that notable artists began recording his songs. “I got some breaks,” Lightfoot says of these early years. “People have recorded my songs who were that important that people took notice of them. Peter, Paul and Mary did “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me.” It was an important thing. Eventually, “Early Morning Rain” got recorded by Elvis Presley, which made me very proud.”
Lightfoot released his debut album, Lightfoot!, in 1966. By the 1970s, he had become one of the world’s most popular folk-rock artists—and he is still revered more than a half-century later. “I’ve been in this business for a long time,” he says, adding that this was always his goal: “I was into it for the longevity.”