Graded on a Curve: Gordon Lightfoot,
An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot

Robbie Robertson has called Canadian folk rock singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot “a national treasure,” and so he is. Canadians don’t just love their Orillia, Ontario native son, they worship him in temples that can only be entered by pilgrims clad in the holy sandals Gord wore on the cover of his 1974 LP Sundown.

And their devotion is understandable–Lightfoot has contributed many a timeless song to the world, and none other than Bob Dylan has gone on record saying that when he hears a Lightfoot song he wishes “it would last forever.”

Lightfoot wrote many a great song from 1965 to 1970 with United Artists, including “Early Morning Rain,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” to name just a few. But he recorded his best known work for Warner/Reprise Records, with whom he signed in 1970. And it’s this work you’ll hear on 2018’s aptly titled compilation An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot.

There are other Lightfoot compilations out there, but they either include music only your hardcore fans will want to own (see 1999’s Songbook or 2019’s The Complete Singles 1970–1980). 1975’s Gord’s Gold is arguably the best comp out there, including as it does material from both his United Artists and Warner Brothers years, but it omits “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (inexcusable!) and (even more inexcusable!) includes re-recordings of the songs from Lightfoot’s years with United Artists.

All ten of the tracks on An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot provide indisputable proof that Lightfoot is the best singer-songwriter to stand his ground in Canada (Neil and Joni and Robbie defected and never looked back), and if you’re inclined to argue this fact with the peace-loving Canucks of the Great White North they might just crown you with a hockey stick and toss you into Lake Ontario.

Cut in 1970, “If You Could Read My Mind” may well be the most touching love song ever written; plaintive and bittersweet, it has moved more people over the years than Canadian Airlines. “Summer Side of Life” is a giddy sunlit pleasure with dark undertones–with its dizzying melody and talk of “young girls everywhere” it’s easy to overlook its crying boys who don’t want to go off to war.

“Beautiful” is a lush and lovely ballad: too soppy for my tastes, granted, and I’d have sooner the people who put the comp together set it aside for the up-tempo “Race Among the Ruins.” Lightfoot’s “Rainy Day People” feel your pain–if you’re feeling blue they’ve been there too. Lightfoot takes to the road on “Carefree Highway,” which isn’t really all that carefree–he’s running from a relationship gone south and sings “Now the thing that I call living /Is just being satisfied/With knowing I got no one left to blame.”

“Sundown” (which along with “If You Could Read My Mind” is the song he’ll be best remembered for) has a spaghetti western vibe. And the song’s a showdown of sorts, between Lightfoot and a beguiling lady in red he doesn’t want creeping up his backstairs. The love song “The Circle Is Small” has a sunrise feel and boasts one of the loveliest choruses I know.

“Baby Step Back” is a kissing cousin of “Sundown”: Lightfoot wants his baby to either step forward or step back, but when all is said and done he’d just as soon she left him alone. And just to prove he’s big on ultimatums, on the surprisingly slinky “Daylight Katy” he sings, “Daylight Katy come on/If you can’t follow me down/Daylight Katy go home.” Lightfoot is a complex man, and in addition to his sadness you’ll often find a touch of anger in even his breeziest songs.

On the haunting topical song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Lightfoot transforms what in the great scheme of things was a minor tragedy into an epic elegy for the twenty men who perished when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Ontario on November 10, 1975. Its length (the song weighs in at almost six and one-half minutes) and unrelenting verses (no choruses on this one) capture the lake’s relentless force, and Lightfoot’s deft handling of the story and his eye for the telling detail are nothing less than masterful. Who can forget the lines:

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya’
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said
‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya’

Or the mournful stanza:

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors’ cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot’s a living legend, and one of the premiere folk rock singer-songwriters of his, or any, time. The American listening public may know him best through a handful of songs, all of which you’ll find on this compilation, but the fine folks of Canada all know and love his entire catalogue, which is as immense as Lake Superior itself. Kinda makes you wonder if they’re keeping Gord to themselves. If they are I intend head north to ask them why, and can only hope I don’t end up in Lake Ontario.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • docmartn

    Great artist, great write up on this comp.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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