Monday, May 14, 2012

Gordon Lightfoot's "Bitter Green"

Gordon Lightfoot's career as a performer and songwriter now extends back more than 50 years, starting with a 1962 album of folk-oriented songs with Terry Whelan as a duo called The Two Tones, whose repertoire demonstrated clear influences from The Weavers, Bob Gibson, the Kingston Trio, and classic country music. Later that same year, Lightfoot scored a Top 10 solo hit on Canada's country charts with a song of his own composition, "Remember Me I'm The One,"* which sounds a bit like it was written by Hank Williams and sung by Elvis Presley. It took another couple of years before Lightfoot got his songwriting feet under him: in his own words, his compositions "lacked an identity" until he began listening seriously to the early work of Bob Dylan and more particularly of Ian Tyson. Oddly, though, GL's songs never sounded much like either of those two artists whom he has claimed as mentors, though both Tyson and Dylan had a hand in promoting Lightfoot as a concert act. In what might at first seem even stranger, GL lists 19th century American composer Stephen Foster as perhaps his most important songwriting predecessor in shaping his own craft, remarking that what he most appreciated about Foster was the "simplicity and individual character of each melody. We all took Foster songs in school and some of that rubbed off on me. I was always a fan of Stephen Foster."

The two compositions that brought Lightfoot his first wide notice in the U.S., "For Lovin' Me" recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary at the height of their popularity and "Early Mornin' Rain" recorded by virtually everyone who sang folk or country in the mid-60s, are characterized by a hard-bittenness that borders on cynicism, and those are two terms that just don't pop into your head when you think of "My Old Kentucky Home" or "Swanee River" or most any other Foster classic.

But the connection is definitely there, and on several levels. First, Foster was a commercial songwriter who nonetheless had a profound understanding of both serious music and the folkways of the country. Lightfoot studied composition and voice in the late 1950s at the now-defunct Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles, and there is a complexity to some of his melodies and instrumental accompaniments that goes well beyond the usual three chord perimeters of the folk and country music that he grew up listening to. Further - though Foster was a lifelong Northerner who lived mainly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, his songs are primarily identified with the American South. Lightfoot is a native of Ontario, which is sort of the Ohio of Canada - not east enough to be East and not west enough to be West - but except for "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," his compositions often wander off to Canada's Rocky Mountain west or Maritimes/Nova Scotia east.

The most important Foster/Lightfoot link, however, may well be in the emotional landscapes explored in their songs. Both composers are unabashed in the open romanticism of many of their best lyrics, with Foster often yearning for a mythic and nostalgic past and Lightfoot frequently mourning love either lost or carelessly tossed away. Both writers seem to dance on a cliff's edge, always in danger of losing their footing in honest feeling and plunging into a sinkhole of mawkish sentimentality - and both have been accused of doing exactly the latter.

At their best, however, Foster and Lightfoot combine genuine emotion with deceptively simple-sounding melodies and the imaginations of great storytellers. Though not one of GL's high profile hit records,"Bitter Green" demonstrates all of those qualities and has been a favorite of Lightfoot aficionados since its appearance on his fourth studio album, 1968's Back Here On Earth on the United Artists label. "Bitter Green" has a lovely melody, and in the mode of many fine traditional songs like "The Escape Of Old John Webb", it supplies the listener with just enough detail to establish a kind of plot, the rest of which must be created in each person's individual imagination. We start with the original '68 GL studio recording:

The instrumental backing here is supplied by Red Shea on lead guitar and John Stockfish on bass, the pair who supported Lightfoot on all of his UA albums. For me and for many long-term GL fans, Shea and Stockfish created the best and purest accompaniment that Lightfoot ever enjoyed. Shea especially is taking the basic major and minor chord accompaniment and embellishing it with fifths and an occasional major seventh - which just means that the accompaniment is rather more complex than you'd normally expect in a simple folk ballad of lost love.

Just a couple of years after the original recording, Ireland's The Johnstons added a bit of Celtic-flavored close harmony to the song:

In addition to the harmonies that lend the song an even more ethereal quality than the original, the accompaniment features two 12 string guitars playing off each other, which is something you don't hear every day in folk music (and in fact had been one of the most unusual aspects of Erik Darling's The Rooftop Singers, which is a tale to be told another time).

The Idle Race was a well-regarded English Midlands rock and folk-rock group of the 60s, a precursor of sorts to the Electric Light Orchestra:

This 1971 version moves along with a percussion and guitar rhythm that seems to anticipate the soon-to-appear country rock phenomenon of the Eagles and their cohorts in the early 70s.

American bluegrass legend Tony Rice, one of the finest flatpickers since Doc Watson, recorded a mid-90s album of Lightfoot tunes called appropriately Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot, and "Bitter Green" is one of the highlights:

Rice here demonstrates a genuine interpretive artist's ability to translate a song across genres. I would never have thought it possible to take so quiet a ballad as this and turn it into a bluegrass number - but I don't possess the spark of genius that Rice has. A great cut, IMHO.

The New Kingston Trio was organized by KT founder Bob Shane in 1969, two years after the original group had disbanded, and Shane was seeking to broaden his new group's repertoire and contemporize it with singer-songwriter selections popular at the time. This rough bootleg recording from 1971 (with Pat Horine and banjo master Jim Connor) gives some indication of the direction in which Shane wanted to take his group:

Shane has said that he thought there might be a studio recording of the NKT doing the song somewhere but that it seems to have been lost. He has also said he regrets that because he really liked the song.

Finally - veteran Canadian folkster Valdy has performed the song for decades, here from October 2010 in Nova Scotia:

Note how much of this Canadian audience is singing along with the performer...

...and that is because in the last half century Gordon Lightfoot's music has embedded itself in Canada's cultural consciousness fully as much as has that of Ian Tyson or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. Lightfoot has garnered more than his share of awards for his career, though Americans seem seldom to place GL on as lofty a pedestal as those others, possibly because of the very transparent emotion of his songs that make compositions like "Bitter Green" so beloved. But that transparent emotion is part of what has enabled Stephen Foster's songs to remain popular 150 years after their composition, and I'd bet that if you asked Lightfoot if he would rather be equated with Neil Young now or with Stephen Foster in a century or so, I think I know what he would say.

*Here is a very early video of GL singing "Remember Me I'm The One" right after the dancing stops:


ENC said...

Brilliant summary and overview. Thanks for this.

Linkmeister said...

You sent me to my iTunes library to see if I owned this, and I do. I've only heard it once there. I need to listen to Lightfoot more often. ;)

Jim Moran said...

Glad that you liked it, ENC!

And Stephen - we ALL need to listen to more of Gord. He's probably my favorite singer-songwriter of the 60s-70s. I'm a bit of a GL purist - the first five or six albums from '66 - '72 on United Artists were musically his best, I think, though his songwriting continued to get better and better through the years. Fabulous back-up work here by Shea and Stockfish.

bllana20 said...

The music recording industry is alive and well. In fact, there are more recording studios now than ever before thanks to digital technology. The difference, is that most of these studios are now owned by the artists and exist in their bedrooms and basements.

Ted said...

Wow, hearing Bitter Green reminds me of hearing the live version from Sunday Concert, which my father would play on Sunday mornings while doing his paperwork. Fond memories, thanks for a great post.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the comment, Ted! I love the Sunday Concert version too, but the studio version was the first I'd heard, which is why it is still probably my favorite. GL has always had a great lead guitarist and bassist to back him up.