This article originally appeared in the January/February 2008 “Legends Issue.”
For a man whose music has persisted for nearly 50 years-making him possibly the only songwriter to have songs recorded by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley-Gordon Lightfoot seems to attribute a lot of his success to fate. Proud enough of his craft to point out that he eventually wasn’t satisfied with albums that stalled at No. 2 on the charts, he’s equally prone to spread credit to the unlikely series of events that made him one of Canada’s most revered songwriters. There’s the man he rented a practice space from in the early ‘60s who just happened to put him in touch with a music publisher. There’s his first wife, the woman who encouraged him to keep recording when he doubted he could feed a family with his songs. But, most of all, Lightfoot feels fortunate that all of his session players over the years have been willing to overlook the fact that he plays nearly everything on the guitar with a capo at the second fret, a move that allows him to stay in vocal range, but forces his sidemen to play in awkward keys.
“I could never come to terms with the fact that I would have to walk into a recording studio and tell a guitar player to get ready to play in the key of F# or the key of B. I was embarrassed about that,” he admits. “I once had to ask Vassar Clements if he could please tune his fiddle down a half tone so I could play a song in E flat,” he says incredulously. “And he just did it! He just tuned ‘er down and away we went.”
Today, on an unseasonably warm September morning in Toronto, he’s soft-spoken and reflective, recalling events from 50 years earlier with exacting detail. From his roots as a choir boy in Orillia, Ontario, to his tenure as a CBC backup singer in the Singing Swinging 8, Lightfoot speaks with the experience of a man who has seen the rise and fall of the folk revival, the invasion of British rock and the emergence of the singer/songwriter movement he helped define. Still, however lucky, success didn’t come overnight. And by the time he enjoyed the first of a string of chart-topping singles in the ‘70s, he’d already been toiling on the scene for a decade. Today, he takes things much slower.
Since a 2002 abdominal hemorrhage nearly took his life, Lightfoot’s priorities have shifted. Still touring over 50 dates a year, the 68-year-old troubadour has largely left the task of songwriting behind, content to spend his days with his family and the occasional interviewer. “It’s better than trying to write a book,” he says after an hour of reminiscing. “They’ve asked me to do that, too, but I could never do that. It would be like my guitar playing,” he laughs.
Do you remember the first time you realized that you wanted to be a songwriter?
Yeah, I started doing it very early on, when I was 17. That would make it…1955. Around 1955, I wrote my own song, and I don’t really know why. But a little later on-one or two years later-when I met some people who were involved in the periphery of the industry, [they told me] I should keep doing that, because I seemed to have some ability. And the encouragement I got from those friends caused me to try to write more songs. And, really, I never stopped after that. Once the folk revival broke in, and Bob Dylan arrived on the scene, I picked up a lot of momentum in my songwriting. It improved a lot, to the point where I was able to attain my first recording contract with United Artists, for whom I made five albums.
Did it take you long to develop your craft as a songwriter?
Yes, it did, and I was glad that I took a music course. I took a theory course at a school out in California when I was 18 years of age. I left my very small town of Orillia with a friend of mine by the name of Buddy Hill, and the two of us flew out to California and went to school in a place called Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles. We were very adventurous. It taught me how to write music.
After that, you started working with the Swinging 8?
No, I was doing all of these things at once. The Singing Swinging 8 was a gig I did at the CBC for two-and-a-half years as part of a vocal ensemble on a weekly television show, and that taught me a lot, too, because I had to read. We were doing choral backgrounds for the other principal artists. I was in the Orillia chorus, and I sang well. I was a good harmonizer, and I could read. I did well. Only I left the whole thing after two-and-a-half years because I went to Sweden and got married to a beautiful Swedish lady named Brita in Stockholm. We came back to Canada, and that’s when my career began. She helped me greatly and encouraged me. I wrote a lot of songs, and all of a sudden there was Bob Dylan and the folk revival. That only lasted for three years, until 1963. And what happened then, other than the assassination of President Kennedy?
The Beatles hit.
Yes sir! You got it. So I had three hit singles over the next eight years, and the whole time I had to compete with The Beatles and Bob Dylan. I managed to break through that three times, which is probably why I have such a large following today.
So by the time you started having success as a solo artist, you had been writing songs for such a long a time. Had you given up on having solo success?
No. I always sang. I had a complete repertoire of songs by other artists. I had, perhaps, almost a hundred songs by other artists, and I did them in all of my solo performances in bars and lounges and places people might go to drink…in coffeehouses…and sometimes the odd small concert might take place. I was working with all the good songs that were going down at the time. I was doing “The Auctioneer” and tunes like that. I didn’t have to rely on my own material at the beginning. There were so many good songs around that I kept learning them, and then I began transplanting my own songs in place of that material. That started about 1965-that I started doing all my own material. Five years before that, 1958 to 1965, I was doing other people’s songs. I always sang and I always performed. I always had a job.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes, I do, in a way. It was on my mother’s side. My grandmother could play the piano. She could play all the Christmas carols, for instance. But it was my mother who encouraged me at an early age by finding out that I was singing. She would take me to the grocery store, and she would find that I’d be walking around singing. So that prompted her to pop me into the church choir, the junior choir. The next thing I knew, I was standing on my grandmother’s kitchen table, about four years old, entertaining all the relatives that were standing around. I forget what I was singing, but I had a song and I was capable of learning songs at that time. I could hear a song on the radio and learn it. So it kind of came naturally, and I never really did anything else. I’m 68 now, and I’ve had a wondrous experience.
What sorts of music did you grow up listening to?
I grew up in a little town, and we listened to “The Hit Parade” when it came on at 1:00 in the afternoon every day. I really wasn’t involved in making a study of it, and I never have been. I could go as far back as Ernest Tubb on the country side. He was one of the first guys that I remember. I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, and naturally I got exposed to country music…I liked country music and still do. But I also like jazz and classical and folk and rock and roll and heavy metal and light rock. I also like hip-hop, because I like to listen to the low end. The work that goes on between the bass drum and bass-it’s fascinating.
So at what point did you start picking up a lot of the folk styles?
When the folk revival broke, I was playing the guitar and doing country songs. So it was very easy for me to switch and start learning some folk tunes. One of the first [groups] that hit me was the Kingston Trio. They recorded “Early Morning Rain” right at that point and did a wonderful job, and it gave me another boost up the ladder. Then, of course, many other artists came in. I liked Judy Collins a lot, and Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie. There were many people that I met that influenced me a great deal…country people like Marty Robbins, Bill Anderson, George Hamilton IV, Johnny Cash and, eventually, Elvis Presley. I was supposed to meet him one time, but there were 18,000 people [at the show] that night, and by the time I got back there to meet him, a voice said, “Elvis has left the building.” It was too late. I couldn’t make it back. There were too many people around. I had an appointment! He had recorded “Early Morning Rain,” and he loved it, and I loved it. And I never got to meet him.
So that must have been a pretty big thrill to have Elvis record one of your songs.
At the time it wasn’t. It didn’t really register until after he was gone, but I loved the job he did on it. I have it right here on my desk. I keep it here. It’s Elvis Now.
Did you know “Early Morning Rain” was a special song when you wrote it?
Kind of. In a way I did. It rolled off very well, and I sent it off on my next set of demos. They called me, and they loved it. They whooped it up over that one. And I said, “That’s great. Let’s record it.” I recorded it first. That’s how people learned it. Ian & Sylvia were the first to record it.
Tell us about “If You Could Read My Mind.”
That was written during the collapse of that marriage, unfortunately. [That’s why] it came through the way it did. It’s a great song. No one has any gripes about it. I wondered what my wife and daughter might think. My daughter is the one who got me to correct “The feelings that you lacked” to “The feelings that we lacked” when we do it on stage. There could be feelings on both sides, and I should have done that in the first place, but the song was written in a bit of a hurry. I didn’t get a change to rewrite that one. You have to watch out for that stuff. You start writing those personal songs, and you get personal attachments. You’ve got to be careful, and I am. It’s kind of restrictive in a way. During my first marriage, I could be more open about what I wrote, because I had fewer restrictions.
Was writing that song a therapeutic process?
At the time, I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that eight months after the album came out and nothing was happening to it-it had no legs-all of a sudden there was a hit single. So I was very surprised by that. I was actually quite glad. My marriage had just broken up, and I was afraid that I was going to go down the tube after that. I was scared for a few years. I was scared the whole time I was married, as a matter of fact. I was one of those people who got married almost knowing that it wasn’t going to last, which is a terrible feeling to have once you get to it. So I wrote some songs pertaining to it, but I got them out of my system early.
What was the inspiration for “Early Morning Rain?”
It sort of took me back to Westlake. I got homesick out there a few times, and I remember I was going out to the airport, and it was a rainy day, and there was a place you could watch the approach of the airplanes. They were actually coming in where I was standing, and I could see them leaving on the other runway right over on the other side. And I was inspired right there with that imagery of an airplane climbing off into overcast, and then I recreated that around 1964, about five years later. So that was an image that stayed there for five years, and all of a sudden it emerged in one afternoon when I was babysitting my five-month-old first child. And I said, “I’ll put him over here in his crib, and I’ll write myself a tune.” I have done that a few times (laughs). And that’s what came out, and I said, “That’s fine, and I’ll send that off to the guys in New York and see what they say.” And they called me right back and said, “Geez, Gordon. This one is great! It’s a lot better than the other 19 you sent us three months ago, because none of them were any good.” I was starting to catch on. That was right around the time I started listening to Bob Dylan, and I started getting a more direct approach, getting away from the love songs and getting a little more down to earth. Or up in the sky, whichever.
So just a few years after that “Sundown” became your biggest hit.
Yeah, that was just a couple of years after that. We had a couple of albums in between – great sales, more covers. “Sundown” went up to #1 in Cashbox,#2 in Billboard, and #2 in Record World. I just remember once that we knocked Paul McCartney out of first place with “Sundown.” He had No. 1 with Wings, and we pushed them back to No. 2. That’s as close as I got to catching up to those guys, because they were always there, and you always had to compete against them. I tell you, it could be discouraging. You could work and work and work and have an album come out, and all of sudden there was a big Beatle album booming up to the top of the charts. The record company at one point tried to time my stuff, trying to schedule it so it would come out when it would have more of a chance. They tried to do that with my last seriously good album [East of Midnight] in 1986, and you’ll never guess who bumped us out of first place in the “Record of the Week” – the Monkees.
What do you think it was about your song “Sundown” that connected with people so easily?
Well, it’s got a good beat to it. It’s got interesting harmonic passages. It has a great arrangement and not too bad of a vocal. If I was going to do it again, I’d probably try to do the vocal again. I’d do it the way Jesse Winchester does it. It comes out a little bit funkier. He’s great. I was on a roll writing a whole bunch of songs at that time, and it was one of your typical insecurity-type songs, a “where is my baby tonight” kind of concept [laughs]. People can relate to that. It’s that concern about not being totally in control of a given situation. I was writing a whole bunch of stuff at that time. I think my girlfriend was out with her friends one night at a bar while I was at home writing songs. I thought, “I wonder what she’s doing with her friends at that bar!” It’s that kind of a feeling. “Where is my true love tonight? What is my true love doing?” I guess a lot of people really do relate to that. That’s part of romance…that wondering.
Is that your songwriting process-to write a lot at one time?
Yeah, you have to clear the time and isolate yourself-at least I do. I have to isolate myself from my family and everything. As a matter of fact, isolating myself has probably ruined all of my marriages.
Is there any way to find a comfortable balance?
Well, you see, it’s at the point now that I’m not writing…right now. I have six children. To say that I have too much responsibility to have time to write…people don’t believe it when I tell them that. But I’m spread way too thin right now to think about writing. I’m 68, and I’m more interested in the welfare of my family members right now and, therefore, I can’t afford to isolate myself for the four or five months to a year that it might take to write ten good songs. I would not be able to see my family and my grandchildren. I would not be able to attend to my responsibilities of running my publishing company. I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things that, by necessity, have got to be done. The only legacy I will have, probably, will be a live album somewhere.
Was there a particular moment when you decided that it was going to be this way?
Well, you sort of just know it. I had a serious health issue that took me off the scene for two years, and you tend to understand that there’s more to life than just making albums. That’s really why I’m not doing it.