Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot 1967 (CBC Still Photo Collection/Roy Martin)

Gordon Lightfoot 1967 (CBC Still Photo Collection/Roy Martin)


An hour of vintage Gordon Lightfoot. He's been called Canada's Folk Laureate, and his melodic and soulful voice is unmistakable. He's a modern-day troubadour with his evocative portraits of Canadian life and landscape. On this edition of Rewind we'll hear interviews and plenty of Lightfoot music.

Be sure to listen to the show right here.

Gordon Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario and cut his first record with his sister at the age of ten. In 1951, he finished first place in the under-13 vocal competition of the Toronto Kiwanis Festival. In 1955 he wrote his first song, The Hula Hoop Song, which launched his career as a song writer. After high school, he became a choral performer and dancer on the CBC program Country Hoedown. In 1964 Lightfoot discovered the music of Bob Dylan which sparked a writing frenzy. Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded some of his songs, including the classic Early Morning Rain, which led to him getting signed by the Albert Grossman talent agency in New York. In January 1966 his debut album called Lightfoot! made him immediately popular.

Many of Lightfoot's songs embrace the Canadian wilderness. In September 1967 the program Telescope travelled to Lightfoot's home town of Orillia to ask him about his fascination with the landscape of Canada.

Lightfoot certainly embraces the Canadian landscape, but he also had his political side. His 1968 song Black Day in July dealt with the Detroit race riots in the summer of 1967. Lightfoot was a big deal in the United States by then, but this song struck a nerve. Radio stations in 30 states banned the song. The CBC program Metronome asked Lightfoot what he thought.

The next piece is from 1969 when the singer and songwriter met with a group of Vancouver high school students to rap about his music.

Words to live by- Canada is a groovy place. By 1975, when he sat down with Elwood Glover on his program Luncheon Date, he was a bona fide star. Songs like For Lovin' Me, Early Morning Rain, Ribbon of Darkness, If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown and Carefree Highway were big hits. Still, not everything was as carefree as it might seem.

Lightfoot had laughingly alluded to the fact that he liked a drink now and again. In fact, he was struggling with alcoholism. Lightfoot told the Toronto Sun in 1996 that his trouble started in 1972 when he mixed alcohol with medication for temporary facial paralysis. Before making a record or going on tour he would dry out by going on long, alcohol-free canoe trips through Northern Canada. "One of the main reasons I gave up drinking was that my writing had slowed to a crawl," he said. He kicked the addiction in the early 1980s. 
With a singing career in high gear, Lightfoot thought he'd take a stab at acting. The program Sunday Morning sent out reporter Bill Barringer to talk to him on the set of the movie Harry Tracy, Desperado, a western about the last member of the Hole in the Wall gang. Lightfoot played Morrie Nathan, a U.S. Marshal trying to bring the legendary outlaw (played by Bruce Dern) to justice.

Harry Tracy, Desperado wasn't Lightfoot's only foray into acting. In 1988 he appeared in an episode of the ABC television series Hotel, playing a country singer on the comeback trail. His songs have also appeared in various films.

Over the years Gordon Lightfoot has collected a lot of awards- seventeen Junos, four Grammys, the Order of Canada. At the 1986 Juno awards he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. To introduce him was his old friend and hero Bob Dylan. As Dylan had previously said, "I can't think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don't like. Every time I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever. "
In 1991, Peter Gzowski invited the notoriously shy Lightfoot to come on his program Morningside for a feature interview. As he said when he introduced him "Your songs are our songs."

As Lightfoot mentioned in this interview, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one of his favourites. At concerts now Lightfoot changes some of the lyrics to reflect the reality of what we know now happened that day, but he has said that he has no intention of officially changing the lyrics.

Lightfoot's output might have slowed in the late 80s and 90s, but when word got out in September 2002 that he was in a coma, the news spread like wildfire. He had collapsed at his home and been transported to hospital with a life threatening- and excruciatingly painful- stomach ailment. He underwent surgery and remained in hospital for three months.

The following year, a still frail Lightfoot appeared at a ceremony for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. The crowd was on edge as he was introduced, many wondering if he was well enough to be there. Lightfoot was eloquently introduced by rocker Tom Cochrane.

Lightfoot, in his speech, said he was looking forward to finishing his next album.
Before his illness Lightfoot had written all the songs for a new studio album. He had recorded guitar and vocal demos for some of them, which ultimately became the foundation for the album. His band members recorded the other parts at a studio near the hospital, saved their work on CD and delivered them daily to his bedside. The album was called Harmony. In May 2004, at the album release party, Heather Hiscox sat down with Lightfoot at Toronto's Massey Hall, one of his favourite venues.

Harmony got mixed but mostly favourable reviews. Steven Wine, a critic for Associated Press, wrote that the troubadour's "voice is thinner and more nasal than when it was a fixture on AM radio, but Lightfoot's folksy delivery remains distinctive. It's like hearing unexpectedly from an old friend."

Since then Gordon Lightfoot has continued to play and perform. In 2012 alone he has clocked more than 60 live performances.

In this hour you heard at least parts of several of Gordon Lightfoot's iconic songs, including Early Morning Rain, Black Day in July, Alberta Bound, For Lovin' Me, I'll Tag Along, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Song for a Winter's Night, Minstrel of the Dawn, Did She Mention my Name and Canadian Railroad Trilogy.