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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Gordon Lightfoot


“Sometimes I think it’s a shame, when I get feeling better when I’m feeling no pain.” — Gordon Lightfoot.

So often, the great and the good of folk-rock are cast to the dusty doldrums of the history books. We are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational moments in the world of music. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created, so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest; this time, we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Gordon Lightfoot.

Lightfoot started his career, like many of the great folk artists, by mainly writing songs for other people. Like artists such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Lightfoot would find his way out of the smokey coffee bars and onto the shelves of record stores through the voices and performances of others. Elvis Presley, Peter Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Marty Robbins, Richie Havens and many others can be regarded as Lightfoot fans, as they have all taken on a song from the classic artist.

Eventually, the levee would break, and Lightfoot’s desire to be under the spotlight would grow uncontrollable. He would sign with United Artists Records in the mid-60s and soon find a place for himself at the pinnacle of the Canadian folk scene. Not to be sniffed at, considering the company also included Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, among many other legends. Lightfoot worked hard to achieve his notoriety, but it would be some years before his name would spread south of the border to the US.

In 1970, Lightfoot would leave United Artists and find a new home with Warner bros. Records. It would prove to be the making of Lightfoot as he, and the label, benefitted greatly from the extra exposure. He delivered a hit single in 1970 and, during the decade, would become one of the most famous folk singers of all. Having released over 20 albums during his career, each one dabbling into a new sound such as pop, country and folk-rock, Lightfoot can rightly be considered a true great of many genres.

Below, we hope to deliver that greatness within the confines of just six defining songs, the tracks that made him and shaped him.

Six definitive songs of Gordon Lightfoot:

‘Ribbon of Darkness’ (1966)

When Lightfoot arrived with his debut album Lightfoot! in 1966, he managed to lay the blueprint for his entire career. Simply put, he would effortlessly blend country music with the new sounds of pop’s golden age and stain it all with flecks of Americana darkness. No better is that seen than on ‘Ribbon of Darkness’.

The song, written by Lightfoot, was originally a hit for Marty Robbins in 1965, but Lightfoot’s performance of the song is, for my money, far greater. Tender and vulnerable, it is Lightfoot beginning his journey to stardom.

‘If You Could Read My Mind’ (1970)

If there is one song that truly launched Lightfoot’s career across the United States it is this one. The artist had been well known in his native Canada for some time, but it was his Christmas single ‘If You Could Read My Mind’, which would confirm his growing status as an important musician and songwriter.

The song was written around the break-up of his first marriage and instantly connected with America’s country-loving fans. Heartbreaking and heartening in equal measure, the song was later performed by Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, and Olivia Newton-John.

‘Sundown’ (1974)

Gordon Lightfoot’s most essential song can easily be regarded as his best. ‘Sundown’ is a beautifully constructed ditty that plunges the depths one may go to in order to keep a relationship afloat. The song was apparently inspired by Cathy Smith, a one-time girlfriend of Lightfoot’s and later a convict following her part in the death of comedian John Belushi.

“I think my girlfriend was out with her friends one night at a bar while I was at home writing songs,” Lightfoot told American Songwriter in 2008. “I thought, ‘I wonder what she’s doing with her friends at that bar!’ It’s that kind of a feeling. ‘Where is my true love tonight? What is my true love doing?’ I guess a lot of people really do relate to that. That’s part of romance…that wondering.”

‘Rainy Day People’ (1975)

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Staring aimlessly out the window, wishing for the drops f rain to gather up and wash away the dirt and debris from our lives. Lightfoot picked out the noted pluviophile’s and decided to write a romantic and dreamy song about them — the 1975 classic, ‘Rainy Day People’.

In truth, the song isn’t actually about lovers of rainy days but those people who have an incandescent ability always to show up when you need them. It is this duplicitous sentiment that makes lightfoot such an engaging songwriter.

‘The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald’ (1976)

A classic folk song is always rooted in truth, and picking out a true story to turn into a song is about as ‘folky’ one person can get. The track is a profoundly moving and affected piece, given the nature of its original content, that is to be expected.

The song was inspired by the tragic real-life sinking of the ore carrier in Lake Superior. The wreckage took the lives of 29 crew members in November 1975 and resonated with Lightfoot so profoundly he had to pen a song in tribute.

‘Anything for Love’ (1986)

As time moved on, Lightfoot moved along with it. His 1986 track ‘Anything for Love’ saw the singer move away from his folk roots and turn his attention to the adult contemporary market. A lucrative moment in Lightfoot’s career saw him transition from vital player to bit-part as he seemingly lost a little of his credibility.

However, the song is undeniably enjoyable on the ear, smooth in the brain and pleasant everywhere else.