A North American national resource
During the days of the 70s when FM radio ruled as the central output for whatever was going on in music, when story-telling Jim Croce had his big bad Leroy Brown, Harry Chapin his cats in a cradle, and James Taylor his fire and rain, Gordon Lightfoot was right alongside them with such hits as "Sundown," "Rainy Day People," "Carefee Highway," "If You Could Read My Mind," and by far the best maritime disaster song of all time, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." They call it easy listening now, many of those FM radio hits that were ballads, but many of the best, in Lightfoot's case, were drawn from gut-wrenching heartbreak and a general appetite for tragedy. Basically, some pretty dark stuff.
In a telephone interview from his home in Toronto, Canada, Lightfoot, now 77, was almost as good at telling the stories of his most famous songs as he is at singing the songs himself.
For example, he says "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, started out as a song when, a few weeks before the disaster happened, he remembered a melody from childhood.
"It was an Irish dirge I heard when I was three," he says of the original melody for the song. "It kind of sprung itself all of the sudden."
The details for the "Edmund Fitzgerald" were realized for Lightfoot when he read a story in Newsweek magazine about the 29 crew members who were lost during the severe November storm.
"I remembered that night because there was a very strong wind in Toronto, and I was wondering how my sailboat was doing that night," he says. "After I read the Newsweek article a few weeks later, the melody was already there and I wrote the song."
Last year was the 40-year-anniversary of the tragedy, and Lightfoot has kept in touch with the families of the victims over the years. A year ago he was throwing himself behind a preservation effort for the old church in Detroit referred to in the song. "I had to take care of that," he says.
Lightfoot and Bob Dylan have had a mutual admiration society for decades, going back to when Lightfoot would occasionally visit Dylan at his songwriting office in New York, after Lightfoot got a management deal with Albert Grossman, who also represented Dylan.
"I can remember watching (Dylan) work on the typewriter," Lightfoot says. "He was really large for me. He's the main influence. I got into how he did it. How he got it done."
He laughed about the week of Woodstock and how there were all of these stories about Dylan performing at the show in upstate New York, while Lightfoot knew all of the time he was at the Isle of Wight festival in England. Lightfoot says he was invited to go to Woodstock, to watch, that is, but he didn't go. Playing such a gig was discouraged by his manager, Grossman, who didn't like the idea of his clients playing for free.
"He'd say 'keep it for the concerts, keep your mystique together,' " he says.
Lightfoot grew up as a performing child prodigy, singing in public for the first time in the fourth grade, and he became quite used to being in front of audiences by the age of 10. He loved Bing Crosby and songs by the 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster, who wrote "Camptown Ladies," among other American standards.
"I don't know if I plagiarized him or not," he jokes of Foster's influence.
He got his career start in music in the late 1950s and early 1960s hosting shows featuring country music, first in Canada, then in England on the BBC, and by around 1964 his songs were being recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins and Peter, Paul and Mary. His first big American hit was "If You Can Read My Mind" in 1970. From that point on, Lightfoot was a heavyweight on the radio playlists.
"There was always competition," he says. "There was always the Beatles or David Bowie in your face."
He says it was during his early years that he'd found a way to write songs: finding solitude by asking people with empty homes or apartments in Toronto if he could go inside and play there for a while. With families, kids, all kinds of people in those coffeehouse folk days of Pete Seeger wannabees around him, it was the best way to get quiet and find the folkways going on in his head.
"I found an empty condo fine. You have to just completely remove yourself from everything," Lightfoot says. "I had an odd thing about working in empty houses. They (the owners) would go outside and have a smoke, and by the time they were done I'd have a song," he says.
By the late 1970s Lightfoot was a huge success in Canada and the U.S. with such singles as "Sundown" and "Carefree Highway," the latter inspired when, on tour in Arizona, he came across a highway sign, literally, "Carefree Highway." He wrote the two words down and threw the piece of paper into a suitcase, only to discover it later when he was in the spirit to write. The song is purported to be about a carefree life on the road, but Lightfoot loaded it with its main story about loss and longing. Equally edgy, from a relationship-song standpoint, is "Sundown," about a man suspicious about his lover, a song that cuts so deep Lightfoot has to remind people that, hey, it's only a song.
"I crossed paths with one guy who was totally convinced 'Sundown' was about him," Lightfoot says. "He was so worried about it, I had to stand there and ease his fears."