Gordon Lightfoot

The influence of “folk” music on the Great American Songbook has been in what we consider two waves. The first is unquestionably the influence of Stephen Foster and similar “folk” music in the very foundation of American popular song, beginning with Irving Berlin.

The second wave of folk music was markedly different; it was folk music as a specific segment of pop. It began with groups like the Weavers, continued with Terry Gilkeyson, The Kingston Trio, and Harry Belafonte.

Some historians argue that a third wave hit with the likes of The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Crosby-Stills-Nash, and Linda Ronstadt. The consensus at PopularSong.org, however, is that these later artists were merely continuing the second wave. This is based on the idea that acts like The Rooftop Singers, Barry McGuire, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn and Joan Baez bridged the gap from the 1950s to the 1970s. In this manner of thinking, the second wave of folk influence began with The Weavers and continued through the late 1970s, when Bernie Leadon left the Eagles and took the folk influence with him into obscurity. Although artists like Collins and John Denver carried on, their importance dwindled right about the time the Eagles plugged into Hotel California.

Each of the artists above is connected in some fashion; the world of folk music is a friendly club, and folkies gravitate to one another. Thus a common thread can be traced from The Weavers through the Eagles, and this second wave of folk music was rife with inbreeding.

One artist came on the scene during the second wave of folk music who somehow tied it all together, marrying folk to pop, created new standards, and traced it all back to Stephen Foster. He’s a Canadian who redefined folk music in American Popular Song, and his name is Gordon Lightfoot.

Like many singer/songwriters, we could hem and haw about whether he should be considered a singer or a songwriter. If anything, Lightfoot has been much more prolific as a songwriter. How to choose? In Lightfoot’s case his recordings and performances are still extremely powerful, while his songs recorded by other singers are mostly obscure. So with that in mind, we present folksinger Gordon Lightfoot, and reflect on his contribution to the Great American Songbook.

Back up a couple paragraphs, and you’ll see that we describe Lightfoot as someone who tied it all together. Like Irving Berlin, Lightfoot lists Stephen Foster among his most significant influences. He moved to California at age 20 and began to study jazz and classical, but had to generate commercial-sounding music to put food on the table. So in retrospect, if Berlin hadn’t invented popular song, Lightfoot probably would have. It just would’ve sounded a lot more like folk.

After a few years writing jingles and studying in California, Lightfoot returned to Canada and his musical roots. By the mid 1960s he was circulating in and among the folkie crowd on both sides of the border. His songs were recorded by acts like Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins, The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary. Lightfoot made a few records of his own, having reasonable success locally in Toronto.

Buoyed by his success, Lightfoot signed with United Artists and generated a string of hits in Canada. He appeared at U.S. festivals and on television, but an American hit eluded him. Two of his 1960s compositions became well-known songs for other artists; “Ribbon of Darkness” for Marty Robbins, and “Early Morning Rain” for Judy Collins and then Elvis Presley.

Failing to chart stateside, Lightfoot was released by United Artists, but picked up by the more progressive Warner/Reprise label in 1970. Warners was run by visionary Mo Ostin at the time. Ostin was known for signing has-beens and obscure acts alike, as long as they showed a creative spark. He inked The Beach Boys at the absolute ebb of their career, and Frank Zappa when he was deemed too bizarre by other major labels. Working with the likes of Lenny Waronker, Ted Templeman, and Van Dyke Parks, Ostin had an ear for quality.

Lightfoot rewarded the label immediately with a hit. “If You Could Read My Mind” was almost raw, a minimal production that soared to #5 in the USA on the basis of Lightfoot’s performance. He had penned the song about his pending divorce, and the emotion is inescapable.

Despite the success of “If You Could Read My Mind,” Lightfoot was not inclined to create pop. His breakthrough album in the U.S. was Don Quixote, which yielded a number of highly regarded but commercially obscure songs. Some of his early 1970s songs limped into the Hot 100, but didn’t hit the top half. Warners wasn’t really expecting many hit singles from a Canadian folk singer. The label was satisfied with the albums, which sold reasonably well.

Lightfoot finally cracked the pop charts again in 1974, this time in a big way. “Sundown,” a single from the album of the same name peaked at #1 on the US charts, both the pop and the easy listening charts. The subject of the song was infidelity in a drug and alcohol infused relationship. Lightfoot readily admits that it was written about Cathy Evelyn Smith, a Canadian-born back-up singer/groupie who cut quite a swath through the pop and folk world of the early 1970s.

Oddly enough, this was only the second known hit song with inspiration contributed by Ms. Smith. The first was allegedly “The Weight,” written by Robbie Robertson of The Band. “The Weight” wasn’t exclusively about Smith, who was dating various members of The Band. (The song was released by the group in 1968, but didn’t make much chart noise. Aretha Franklin picked it up, and took the song to #18.) After leaving The Band, Smith began her tumultuous affair with Lightfoot, which ended as “Sundown” was climbing the charts in 1974. She then took up with quasi-folkie Hoyt Axton, singing and even co-writing a song called “Flash of Fire.” Somehow Smith was pulled back into the orbit of The Band while that group was appearing on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s, and ultimately gained national notoriety for serving up the elixir of cocaine and heroin that killed John Belushi.

You’ll have to pardon that slight detour; the Smith saga is included here because of her role in “Sundown,” a song that remains popular. Three decades later, Lightfoot’s recording doesn’t sound dated at all, which is rather unusual for music from the 1970s.

Another classic from that album is “Carefree Highway,” which peaked at #10 pop and #1 on the easy listening charts. The LP itself also rode to #1 on both the pop and easy listening album charts. It was also a solid seller on the country charts, and the songs were covered by country artists.

By all definitions, “Sundown” is a pop standard. “Carefree Highway” doesn’t quite have the same status, but remains popular to some extent. He followed these a year later with “Rainy Day People,” which is a song that absolutely begs to be re-recorded by a contemporary artist. Perhaps the idea of duplicating Lightfoot’s incredible performance on the original is just too daunting; it supports our premise that his importance as a vocalist easily rivals his importance as a songwriter.

By 1976 Lightfoot’s records were among the most compelling offerings on mainstream radio. On a radio dial crowded with songs like “Disco Duck,” “Convoy,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” Gordon’s songs required more than just vacuous enjoyment. His records didn’t appeal to everyone, but everyone noticed them. He provided important music at a time when America was mostly tuned in to disco.

His signature song is arguably “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a surprise hit released during the summer of 1976. It’s probably one of the most unusual entries in the Great American Songbook, a long narrative with no chorus. The melody is carried by Gordon’s vocal. It should be pointed out that he never had a tremendous range, and he couldn’t hold a note for any significant length of time. Yet his vocal style — particularly on Edmund Fitzgerald — is what makes the song work. In the 30 years since, folk guitarists in coffee shops and nightclubs across the land have dreaded the inevitable audience request: “do you know the Edmund Fitzgerald song?”

Pop music’s overproduced sound and obsession with poofy hair left little room for Gordon Lightfoot in the 1980s. His output slowed, and he faded from the charts. He had some health issues in recent years — at one point came close to dying — but a return to the live stage and a critically-acclaimed 2004 album Harmony led to a “re-discovery” of his music. As Lightfoot continues to tour in the new millenium, respect for his songs and his influence is higher than ever.

If you don’t have any Gordon Lightfoot music in your collection, there is an abundance of greatest hits collections to choose from. Must-haves are of course, “Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Sundown,” “Daylight Katy,” “Cotton Jenny,” “Rainy Day People,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Carefree Highway,” “The Circle Is Small,” “Beautiful,” “The Summer Side of Life,” “The Watchman’s Gone,” and of course “Early Mornin’ Rain.”  From his later career, the haunting “Inspiration Lady” is simply wonderful.

Now if you want a little more than just a collection of great songs, the album to look at is Sundown. This is one of the best albums released in the 1970s, and like most important artists, Lightfoot’s individual CDs present a much more thorough expression of his music than a greatest hits CD.