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Remembering Canada’s own troubadour, Gordon Lightfoot 1938-2023

Its impossible for Canadians of a certain age to think about Gordon Lightfoot whose death at 84 was announced late yesterday, without also thinking of Yorkville in 1966 where it all began for Lightfoot and so many Canadian artists. Who would ever think that what is now Canada’s most expensive upscale retail and dining destination, was in the 60’s a mecca for folkies, hippies, beatniks, bikers and weekenders, in part because of the cheap rents.

Coffee shops abounded in the run-down Victorian houses that lined Yorkville Avenue and Cumberland Streets between Avenue Road and Bay Street—the Riverboat, the Penny Farthing, the Mynah Bird, the Night Owl and the Purple Onion and many, many more. It was largely a folk-blues scene—not much rock. Those who performed there early in their careers in addition to Lightfoot included, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia, Neil Young-then with Rick James and the Mynah Birds, Murray McLaughan, Bruce Cockburn, Odetta, Malka and Joso, Luke and the Apostles and Robbie Lane and the Disciples.

Around the corner from Yorkville on Avenue Road was a record store where Lightfoot’s first hit album, Lightfoot!,  was debuting. For a first album it had a large number of what would be classics. There was “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me”, both of which had been chart hits for Peter Paul and Mary as well as Ian and Sylvia a year earlier; also included “I’m Not Saying” and “Ribbon of Darkness.” Marty Robbins covered “Ribbon of Darkness” in 1965 and made it a country and pop chart hit.

Lightfoot’s first hit album in 1996

Other performers who recorded Lightfoot’s songs included Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Chad & Jeremy, George Hamilton IV, the Clancy Brothers, and the Johnny Mann Singers. Established recording artists such as, Leroy Van Dyke (“I’m Not Saying”), Judy Collins (“Early Morning Rain”), Richie Havens and Spyder Turner (“I Can’t Make It Anymore”), and the Kingston Trio (“Early Morning Rain”) all achieved chart success with Lightfoot’s material.

The album, “Did She Mention My Name,” released in January 1968, featured “Black Day in July”, about the 1967 Detroit riot. Weeks later, upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, radio stations in 30 states pulled the song for “fanning the flames”, even though the song was a plea for racial harmony. Lightfoot stated at the time radio station owners cared more about playing songs “that make people happy” and not those “that make people think.” Unhappy at a lack of support from United Artists, he defected to Warner Bros. Records, scoring his first major international hit in early 1971 with “If You Could Read My Mind”.

One of his biggest hits was the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, about a shipwreck disaster on Lake Superior. It went to number two in the US. At just under six minutes in length, the song had the distinction of being the song radio disc jockeys would play if they had need to use the washroom.

In 2002, Lightfoot suffered severe stomach pain and was airlifted to McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton. He underwent emergency vascular surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, and he remained in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit . Lightfoot endured a six-week coma and a tracheotomy, and he underwent four surgical operations, before he was eventually released.

Just before his death on May 1, Lightfoot’s publicists announced he was cancelling a scheduled tour due to health reasons. He died Monday in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. Of him, Bob Dylan once 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…. Lightfoot became a mentor for a long time. I think he probably still is to this day”.

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