I was in my mid-teens when I bought this album, a rare occurrence for me as we kids didn’t have much disposable money those days and my parents reserved their gift-buying for Christmas, for the most part. Like most Americans at the time, I had heard Gordon Lightfoot’s music first through covers, the Peter, Paul, and Mary cover of “Early Morning Rain” in my case. Others probably heard the Marty Robbins cover of “Ribbon of Darkness” first. In any event, this was the album I bought, and I played it over and over again. I can safely say it changed my life.
I bought a twelve-string guitar. I adopted the soulful troubadour persona that I inhabited for a few years. I started performing in coffeehouses and open mics.
But more importantly, I came to appreciate the art of storytelling and lyricism that Gordon Lightfoot’s songs exemplified. Even a simple song like “Saturday Clothes” had a twist. And some of his greatest songs are the most mysterious. “If You Could Read My Mind” is a fantastically complex piece of thinking, packaged up as a three-minute heartbreak song.
I saw Gordon Lightfoot first at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, I think, and at least three more times over the years. The last time was in Nashville, in 2009 or 2010. His voice was pretty much shot by then, but he was a real trouper. He knew what the audience wanted, and he stood up there and delivered it, a full show, even though you could tell it was hard for him.
The first time I saw him he just had two sidemen, a bass player and a lead guitarist, and in later shows he added a drummer, and that was about it. The point of the show was not to overwhelm you with the effort, but to lay out the songs clean and clear. Often there would be a momentary hush after a song was finished as the audience took in the lyrics. Then applause after that beat. I always thought that pause was one of the greatest tributes you could give a songwriter.
People throughout the crowd would be hollering out their favorite song titles in hopes that he would sing it, and sometimes he did. What was interesting about that was that over the course of the night, somebody would holler out just about every single song in his output. The commercial hits, the obscure meditations, the throwaways. Every song had somebody who made it their favorite.
And the narrating voices, the different points of view! That was one of his great strengths. The cynical rake of “I’m Not Saying” and “For Loving Me,” the dreamy romantic of “Beautiful” and “Softly,” the tortured slave to sick love of “Sundown” — every voice was convincing. That was one of the great lessons I learned from Lightfoot, that you didn’t have to speak in the straightforward first-person singular all the time. And that was the gift that set him apart from so many other singer-songwriters of the time.
So this morning as I learn of Gordon Lightfoot’s death at the age of 84, and as I look back over his enormous catalog of songs, the only proper thing to say is “Thank you.”