Monday, November 18, 2013

Gordon Lightfoot: In Celebration Of His 75th Birthday

Gordon Lightfoot is 75 today, and that is a happy fact for any number of reasons - the first of which, of course, is that he is still with us to celebrate the day after his well-documented close brush with the Great Beyond in 2002. Lightfoot's survival of a stomach aneurysm, his five weeks in a coma, and his subsequent direction from his hospital bed of the production and remixing of his last studio album (Harmony, released in 2004)  are a testament to his toughness and grit, to say the very least. It is also a pleasure to see Lightfoot alive and kicking and in plenty good enough shape to accept all the awards and accolades and honors that have been heaped on him in recent years. This adulation has come now, perhaps, because as with several of his artist contemporaries (John Denver springs immediately to mind, as I note in the linked article), the pop music world in the U.S. had largely forgotten about Gord after his five minutes of fame (about five years, actually) in the 1970s, and Lightfoot's near-fatal illness may well have prompted people to dust off all those old tapes and LPs and realize what a treasure his career has been. 

Denver never lived to see the popular and critical reconsideration of his work (again, discussed at more length in the article above), but Lightfoot has accepted it all with characteristic grace, with obvious enjoyment, and with a quiet understanding of what his music has meant to two generations of Canadians and Americans. Lightfoot touches on all of this during this brief interview segment from the CBC in 2008 as he turned 70. It is a pretty good short intro to the man and his music as well:

I had my own say on Lightfoot a year and a half ago in a post that celebrated both the 50 year mark of Gord's career and one of my own favorite Lightfoot numbers, "Bitter Green." I do not want to repeat myself, so all I will say from that post at the moment is that of all the great folk-styled singer-songwriters of the Sixties and later - Paul Simon, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, John Stewart, Kate Wolf, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and so many more - Gordon Lightfoot remains my single favorite through the five decades since I first heard his music. Why that is so is easy to express. Even given the wide range of experiences, events, and ideas that his songs have dealt with, through all these years Lightfoot has remained faithful to his original vision, and that vision is closer to real folk music than that of probably any of his contemporaries except Paxton. The acoustic purity and deceptive simplicity of Lightfoot's recorded songs mark him to my way of thinking as a great artist, one who expresses the profound complexity of human experience within a genre whose dictates demand an accessibility and singability that would seem to obstruct such expression. Lightfoot accomplishes much while using rather little: a few acoustic instruments, usually, and his own voice, often unsupported by back-up singers or even double-tracked harmony. His entire body of work is concrete exemplification of the principle that less is often more.

It would be a fool's errand to try to assert what Gordon Lightfoot's best songs are, and God knows I would be hard pressed even to narrow my own favorites to twenty or twenty-five compositions. Yet of those, six or seven immediately suggested themselves to me to be appropriate for this article, mostly because these are some of the ones that I find myself returning to year after year and decade after decade to listen to, to reflect upon, and to play and sing for myself and my friends.

"Early Morning Rain"
This, of course, was the composition that put Lightfoot on the map, largely as a result of its appearing on two high-profile LPs. Canadian stars and Lightfoot mentors Ian and Sylvia recorded the tune even before GL did and named their fourth album on Vanguard after it, and the song's appearance on Peter, Paul and Mary's See What Tomorrow Brings record gave it its widest audience, since that LP reached #11 on the Billboard album charts and earned a gold record for the trio. Yet both groups softened the number, giving it a tinge of melancholy but downplaying the anguished near-despair of the song as Lightfoot wrote it - and as he performs it here, from 1979:

"Song For A Winter's Night"
As I mentioned in the "Bitter Green" post above, many of Lightfoot's most beloved songs are of love neglected or lost. This is one of the best of those.

"Affair On Eighth Avenue"
...speaking of which...

The entire BBC concert from which this performance is taken is available on YouTube and will be linked at the end of this article.

"The Minstrel Of The Dawn"
In which the troubadour sings of the life of the troubadour:

"10 Degrees And Getting Colder"
Combining the troubadour and lost-traveler-on-the-open-road-motifs:

"Did She Mention My Name?"
A rather more upbeat reflection on love and separation:

"Farewell To Nova Scotia"
Finally, a reminder that Lightfoot started out as a folksinger with a masterful way with a traditional tune like this:

Lightfoot continues to tour, averaging about one show per week, mostly in Canada but with frequent forays south of the border. It is a schedule busy enough to keep him sharp and engaged as a performer, and if time has diminshed the voice somewhat, the spirit is as willing as ever. Lightfoot usually demurs in interviews when people ask him what he thinks his legacy will be, and I understand that. As in the first video above, he thinks of himself as a working and touring songwriter and musician - a troubadour, in other words - and that is where his focus lies. But I closed the "Bitter Green" post with my assessment of his legacy, and at the risk of becoming self-referential, I would like reiterate it here: 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....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.
Four of the videos above are taken from an hour-long BBC concert special from 1972. It is a shortened version of the full show I saw that year during his "Summer Side of Life" tour. The DVD of that show is no longer available, but the entire television performance has been uploaded in HD to YouTube:

Lightfoot On The BBC: Full Show

It is well worth the time and concludes with a masterful rendition of "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," another gem.

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