Our favourite bands or artists are, more often than not, those we have some personal, emotional connection to. Music, being an abstract and indefinable thing, needs something physical to tether itself to. It needs venues, fascinating personalities, movements and scenes. This last one is especially important. Anyone who has heard of Brian Eno’s term ‘Scenius’ will know that no artist arrives fully formed. Instead, their craft has almost always been influenced by a group of like-minded creatives pursuing a similar goal. For no artist is this more true than with Bob Dylan.
Often heralded as the defining voice of his generation, Dylan is the perfect example of a songwriter who absorbed the musical influences that surrounded him at all sides in the late 1950s and early ’60s. One of the most important of these influences came in the form of a songwriter known as Gordon Lightfoot. A contemporary of Lightfoot during the US folk revival, Dylan would continue to celebrate the musician’s songwriting throughout his career, describing him as one of his favourite artists of all time. Of Lightfoot, Dylan once said: “Gordo’s been around as long as me. ‘Shadows’, ‘Sundown’, ‘If You Could Read My Mind.’ I can’t think of any I don’t like.”
For Dylan, Lightfoot was a songwriter with the ability to imbue his lyrics with universal appeal. His classic song ‘Early Morning Rain’ achieved the popularity it did largely because it told a story that many young people could relate to. The track captures all the stoicism and wanderlust that defined the beat movement in the 1950s and quickly became a popular hit as a result. The track seemed to herald a new form of songwriting, which understood the power of putting the right words in the correct order.
In contrast to the country and rock ‘n’ roll music that dominated the American charts at the time, Lightfoot showed the world that a song could carry real meaning. It’s no wonder Bob Dylan called him one of his “favourite composers,” Lightfoot’s songs were covered by a stunning variety of artists, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Neil Young, Judy Collins, and The Grateful Dead. Dylan once claimed that whenever he heard a Gordon Lightfoot song, he wished “it would last forever”.
Lightfoot was born in Canada in 1938 and taught himself to play folk guitar from an early age. He honed his skills as a performer and songwriter throughout his school years before moving to America in 1958 to study jazz composition and orchestration at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music. After a lengthy period of anonymity, Lightfoot eventually signed a management contract with Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. He joined Dulan at the legendary Newport Folk Festival and quickly earned a reputation as one of the best songwriters on the circuit.
In those early days of his career, however, he struggled to achieve the commercial success of Dylan. Indeed, his biggest hit of the ’60s was a cover of Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, which peaked at number three on the Canadian charts in December 1965. But in the eyes of Dylan himself, lightfoot was a singular talent, and, years later, he is still singing his praises.