For my first Sunday Morning Music post of 2018, I thought it was time to pay tribute to someone with whom I’m sure most of my readers are familiar. He’s had a more dramatic impact on folk, folk-rock and some styles of country music than almost anyone else in the past century. I refer, of course, to Canadian singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. (born November 17, 1938) is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved international success in folk, folk-rock, and country music, and has been credited for helping define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. He has been referred to as Canada’s greatest songwriter and internationally as a folk-rock legend.
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Some of Lightfoot’s albums have achieved gold and multi-platinum status internationally. His songs have been recorded by some of the world’s most renowned recording artists, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., The Kingston Trio, Marty Robbins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Herb Alpert, Harry Belafonte, Scott Walker, Sarah McLachlan, Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Jack Jones, Bobby Vee, Roger Whittaker, Peter, Paul and Mary, Glen Campbell, The Irish Rovers, Nico, Olivia Newton-John, Paul Weller, Nine Pound Hammer, and Ultra Naté.
Robbie Robertson of the Band described Lightfoot as “a national treasure”. Bob Dylan, also a Lightfoot fan, called him one of his favorite songwriters and, in an often-quoted tribute, Dylan observed that when he heard a Lightfoot song he wished “it would last forever”.
There’s much more at the link. Mr. Lightfoot’s impact on the musical scene over the last fifty to sixty years, particularly in North America, is so vast it’s hard to define it. To help understand it, if you’re interested, here’s a very recent (and relatively rare) extended interview he gave to Canadian public television.
With “19 studio albums, three live albums, 16 greatest hits albums and 46 singles” to his credit, it’s impossible to pay tribute to Mr. Lightfoot’s musical genius in just one short blog post. Accordingly, I’ll return to his music at intervals during this year, trying to select songs that fit a particular theme. This morning, I’d like to select a few that reflect the sea and ships. Mr. Lightfoot was an enthusiastic amateur sailor for many years, particularly on the Great Lakes, so it’s logical that many of his songs would reflect that. I haven’t tried to list all of his songs on that theme; just a few of my favorites.
Most of you probably know Mr. Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“. It’s probably his best-known work, and tells the story of a nautical tragedy on Lake Superior in 1975. Since it’s so well-known, I suppose it makes sense to begin with it. First, here he talks about the song.
And here’s the song itself, in its original version. Having endured some pretty spectacular storms at sea in the South Atlantic Ocean aboard small South African patrol craft, this song has always had a visceral impact on me. I don’t know a more powerful way of describing death by drowning than his famous lines:
Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
They can still send chills down my spine.
A lot of people aren’t aware that “Fitzgerald” wasn’t Mr. Lightfoot’s first song about a maritime disaster. A decade earlier, in 1965, the passenger ship SS Yarmouth Castle burned and sank off the Bahamas. The tragedy led to revisions in maritime safety standards for US-registered ships. Gordon Lightfoot commemorated it in a hard-to-find early album, “Sunday Concert“. Here’s his “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle”.
Gordon Lightfoot has campaigned for the conservation of natural resources. For a time he was prominent in the anti-whaling community with his “Ode to Big Blue”.
Mr. Lightfoot was invited to compose a theme to a nautical TV show at one time. Here’s what he came up with.
So, there you have it: a small selection of songs from a truly vast output. I’ll have more of Gordon Lightfoot’s music later in the year.