Ballads That Stand the Test of Time
July 27, 2017
Growing up in the 60s meant a lot of different things for different people. For me, with a father who was a college student, it was a fairly entertaining affair. Though young parents, my father and his friends were older than the many of the students on the campus of Penn State. They didn't live in student housing, and all juggled full-time jobs with their families and studies. This meant there was no money to do much, so we'd all hang out together quite a bit of the time. Although there was plenty of political discussion, what I remember most is the music. A few of the friends played the guitar and would pull them out whenever we gathered.
There were other children in our little community, and a couple of them had an uncle who often joined us. Although I thought him quite old at the time, I realize now he was just a teenager, a more typical age for college. Since our friends called him Uncle Ed, so did we, and he was a particular favorite and would play songs for us all the time. There were a couple kid-friendly pieces that stand out ("Yellow Submarine" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" remain favorites) but it wasn't all for our benefit. The name which stands out from those days, practically the poet laureate of our gatherings, was Gordon Lightfoot. Uncle Ed (who prefers that I call him Ed now that I'm so old) was and still is a huge Lightfoot fan. "Gord," as he calls him, was a fixture in my life before he was a fixture on radio.
It's not surprising that Lightfoot would attract such a devoted following. From his early days in Ontario, Canada, where he began performing while still a boy soprano, Lightfoot's gentle but moving voice placed him on a path of stardom before most have started high school. As a teen he taught himself to play the guitar, and although part of groups for several years, Lightfoot struck out on his own in the early 1960s and developed the folk-rock sound which was to become very influential in the years to come.
By the 1970s, his now iconic hits began with "If You Could Read My Mind" in 1970 and continued with "Sundown," "Carefree Highway" (both 1974) and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976). His songs have been covered by some of the biggest names in music, as well, providing a catalog which rivals any songwriters out there. Even his fellow folk-rock legend Bob Dylan is a fan, saying "Every time I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever."
Not too surprisingly, Lightfoot is a good storyteller as well as songwriter, and he is frequently called upon to share the stories behind some of his best-known songs. In a 2015 interview with NPR, he shared the backstory to several of his songs, including his hit "If You Could Read My Mind."
"Well, I was going through some emotional stress at that time right at the end of my first marriage, actually, when I wrote that one. And some of the stress that I was feeling at the time worked its way into that song. And it was what they call a bit of a sleeper, meaning that really nobody knew what the single was going to be off that album. I was quite surprised to be getting out of bed, feeding my 4-month-old son the first time I heard it on the radio. It was really thrilling to me. And it was about something really going on in my life, which sort of made its way into the structure of that song."
While that song shared a very personal story, Lightfoot came to write "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" under very different circumstances. Having heard about the accident first on a Canadian broadcast, his interest, mingled with a bit of outrage, piqued when he later read about the incident.
"Two weeks later, I saw an article. I forgot all about it [and then] saw an article in Newsweek magazine. I said gosh, this is short, short shrift for such a monumental event. But what really spurred me on it was that they were spelling the name wrong. It's spelled Edmund; they used an 'o' instead of a 'u,' and I said that's it. I said if they're spelling the name wrong, I've got to get into this. So I was remembering back to a song, a dirge - an Irish dirge that I'd heard at 3 years old. And that was what I used to write the 'Edmund Fitzgerald.'"
But his legions of fans love more than the hits. Even more than the music, they love the man himself. And his admiration for them and desire to perform are even more apparent when one understands the health issues he has had to overcome to continue performing. More than a decade ago, an aortic aneurysm kept him off the road for a couple years and very easily could have ended his career.
"I was deaf for the first six months," he recalled in 2015, "but three days after I woke up, or came fully into consciousness again ... I said let's get the guys in there. And let's go ahead and make an album. I was working on that record before I left the hospital. I've just been a very lucky person."
As he approaches the end of his eighth decade (he turns 79 in November) Lightfoot continues to travel and share his music with fans around the world. He can occasionally be self-deprecating about his own music and told Vanity Fair last year that he performs only his best material, a luxury his prolific songwriting career has afforded him.
"No, I don't need to sing that," he laughed when asked why he no longer performs "For Lovin' Me." "I've got the best, the cream of the crop right now, thank you. That's not cream of the crop. I just do the cream-of-the-crop songs in my show.
"We just bowl them over; they love us. It just keeps getting better. It's just like old wine in a bottle. It just feels better; it looks better. Everyone just prays for one thing, please. No. Health. Issues. Please."