The last time I saw Gordon Lightfoot in Victoria at the McPherson Playhouse he wandered out on stage, guitar in hand, looking gaunt and long-haired and said to the audience “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
It got a big laugh. We all knew he had laughed at death a few times in the past and had once called a Toronto radio station from his car to tell them the newscast that just announced he had died was wrong. He laughed then too.
Now it’s for real. Nobody’s exaggerating. And nobody’s laughing. We have lost a jewel of a man, the Canadian troubadour and poet, who provided the soundtrack of Canada for millions of us over the last 60 years.
The headlines have all called him a legend, and that’s accurate. But The Globe and Mail, which ran two stories on his death, had the best: “We never had to read Gordon Lightfoot’s mind. We had his songs.” Songs that soared and ached and seared themselves into our consciousness.
We all have our favourites. Sundown, for sure. If You Could Read My Mind, a timeless, perfect classic. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Talking In Your Sleep. There were 500 or so of them, sung in that distinctive Canadian voice. Songs of Canada and songs of love.
My own favourite is Song For a Winter’s Night. For personal reasons. I learned many Lightfoot songs on guitar and piano and Song for a Winter’s Night was and is lovely to play and sing.
More importantly, my two young daughters, raised on a juvenile musical Canadian diet of Raffi and Fred Penner and Skinnamarink by Sharon, Lois and Bram, learned to sing it with me. They still do, when pushed, on birthdays and family celebrations and it still brings tears to my eyes…and to those listening.
I once met Lightfoot briefly following a concert in Vancouver. I was introduced by Red Robinson, another Canadian music legend who we lost recently, and I got to tell Lightfoot how my daughters and I had sung his song over the years and it was something very special to us.
“It pays the bills,” he said, which struck me as somewhat, well, less than profound. But Lightfoot was always socially awkward and painfully shy, and his stage presence was all about the music and lyrics and not so much about the words in between.
I have seen him many times, but in Victoria he was more relaxed than I had ever seen him. Some members of his family, including a grandchild, who live in B.C. were in the audience and he spent time talking about them with warmth and gratitude. It made for a special evening. I bought a multi-disc CD at the concert, plugged it into the car deck, and Gordon and I sang together all the way home.
Early Morning Rain. Did She Mention My Name. On and on. The soundscape of Canada.
Once when I was in a department store in Los Angeles, If you Could Read My Mind was playing on the sound system.
I asked the young shop assistant if he knew who the singer was. He thought for a moment.
Well done, I said
“He’s Canadian, right?”
Through and through, I said.
Through and through and through.
Ian Haysom is consulting editor with CHEK Media.