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Happy Birthday, Gordon Lightfoot

| November 17, 2012 | 9 Comments

Gordon Lightfoot turns 74 on November 17th of this year, but to those of us who came of age during the folk revival of the early ‘60s and the singer/songwriter boom of the mid ‘70s, the man is already immortal. “Early Morning Rain,” “For Loving Me,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and dozens of others are already standards, treasured tunes that have become part of the soundtrack of our lives. Since his major label debut in 1966, Lightfoot has picked up a handful of gold records, Grammy nominations, Junos (Canadian Grammys) and the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest honor, for his contributions in furthering Canadian culture.

Lightfoot made his major label debut with an eponymous album for United Artists in 1966, when he was 28, which was (and still is) rather old for a musician hoping to make a mark in the world of pop music. The album included “For Lovin’ Me” and “Early Morning Rain,” which had already been folk hits for Ian and Sylvia and Peter, Paul and Mary, and “Ribbon of Darkness,” which had been a #1 country record for Marty Robbins.

Lightfoot is still writing and performing, and after almost 50 years says he has no plans to retire. To celebrate his birthday, here are excerpts from a 1998 Performing Songwriter interview by J. Poet.

Do you have a regular writing schedule? Do you write when an album is due, or when inspiration strikes?

I try to write at least once a week, but there’s no set pattern. Lately, I’ve been finding it goes easier if I get to it by four or five in the morning and work until nine or ten. I seem to get a lot of good ideas in the morning, when I’m on that border between sleep and waking. It happens more often if I’ve been thinking about a song just before going to sleep. Somehow, it will then present itself to me in a clear manner. Then it’s a matter of getting up, putting on the kimono, and getting down to the music room before I forget it. Lately, it’s been happening quite frequently. I don’t know what the wife thinks about it, but it’s been good for me.

How does the actual composition go?

I usually get the melody and chords down first, then try to get a marriage going between the words and music, to discover the story of the song and keep expanding, keep pressing onward. It takes about an afternoon of work, maybe four or five hours before you can get the story to come around, but it’s a nebulous process. Sometimes the lyric will be solid, sometimes it’s pretty abstract. If I get one that’s not saying anything ¾ if I work on it and work on it and there’s still no lyrical or emotional development, then I throw it in the waste basket, which I’ve done on quite a few occasions. It’s not done in a serious way ¾ there’s no funeral, it’s a quite peaceful process.

How do you get song ideas?

I stand here for hours, strumming and thinking. I have the desk set up on stereo speakers, so I can work standing up. I stand here and work until my feet get sore because I work better standing up. I also have the cassette player, and I write down the counter number of the ideas I put down, so if I get an inspiration, I can go back to the music I put down five weeks ago. If something starts happening, I write out the chords and the melody and start looking for a lyric, something to get the words happening ¾ a phrase, a title. Sometimes I even pick up a newspaper and see if I can find a line of type. That’s how “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” happened. I saw the story on TV, about five hours after it happened, so I collected every newspaper for the next couple of weeks and the song came out. It’s basically a straightforward account of how the events actually unfolded.

How long does the average tune take from the first idea to completion?

On average, six months, but there’s a sidelight here, because you’re usually not working on one tune at a time, but on three or four simultaneously, so it’s hard to say where the process starts and ends. In the case of “The Edmund Fitzgerald,” it was written and recorded in one week. These days, I tend to second guess myself more, and try to get every little thing perfect. I’m also trying to put time into my family life, so the process takes more time.

How long did “Early Morning Rain” take to write?

“Early Morning Rain” took about nine years. While I was taking the training at Westlake in 1956, we’d watch the aircraft taking off and coming in to LAX. The Boeing 707 had just been commissioned. Years later, I went back to those moments to get “Early Morning Rain,” probably the most important song I’ve ever written. Elvis liked it enough to do it, not to mention Peter, Paul and Mary and Ian and Sylvia.

You don’t talk much about your personal life in interviews, but do the things going on with your family or in relationships ever have a direct impact on your writing?

In some cases the songs are autobiographical; some events and traumas that have to get handled, one way or another, go into the tunes. And it’s easier and cheaper than going to a shrink. “If You Could Read My Mind” was written about the events that happened when I was getting divorced from my first wife. I’d just moved to the country, to a little farm, and signed with a new label, and the marriage was breaking up. I drank quite a bit too, until 1982, when I gave it up. There’s a line in the song that goes ¾ “If you read between the lines, you’ll know that I’m just trying to understand, the feeling that you lack.” My daughter, who was just a girl at the time, heard the song and asked me “Don’t you lack any feelings, daddy?” She got me to change the line to “the feelings that we lack.” She said I was putting the whole onus of the divorce on her mother.

You often mention Dylan as an inspiration, but there are no obvious parallels between your music and his. What’s the source of the inspiration?

I had a chance one time to talk to Bob, this was early on about 1968, I think. I sensed in him a drive and a real “lets get the job done” attitude. I got my work ethic from him. He’s made a lot of albums and he’s always writing. He’s learned to thrive and survive and do a good job. He’s probably my all-time favorite. I love his stuff. If he’s working, I’m gonna be there right along with him. But he has different influences than I do. He cites Little Richard and Elvis [laughs]. I said to him once, “Little Richard and Elvis? In your music?” And he just gave me one of those looks [more laughter].

Any advice to aspiring songwriters?

The advice I’d give is really simple: keep on working. That’s the secret. You’ve got to write some tunes, make demos, and find a good manager, agent, record company, and a publisher. But without the songs, you can’t go anywhere. So keep writing and working.

—By J. Poet

From Performing Songwriter Issue 33, November 1998

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (9)

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  1. Garnet Watson says:

    The first time (one of many) I saw Gord in concert was around 1970ish in Peterborough Ontario. There was a snow storm that night that was unbelievable. Wonder if any one else remembers it?

  2. Mauricio Loiacono says:

    Gordon Lightfoot – Esse grande poeta e cantor dispensa qualquer comentário, uma genialidade unica.

  3. Tom Helfrick says:

    Gordon is incredible!

  4. Linda says:

    I think he’s the most amaziing musician i have ever heard. Bless u my friend hope all is well

  5. cinda guilbault says:

    I started “getting into” Lightfoot back in the early 70’s, and went to see him whenever he was anywhere near, from colleges, Detroit many times, Flint, and across the border! I LOVE GORDON. He’s a genius. I’ve seen him probably 20 times or more! His music has gotten me through some rough times, and I’ve used his music for years in my 3rd grade classrooms to teach them about empathy (Home from the Forest), to environment (Ode to Big Blue) and the part of Michigan studies (Edmund Fitzgerald).They end up begging to listen!!!!

  6. Linda says:

    I have listened to Gordon Lightfoot since 1970, and have followed his music through the years. His lyrics speak from the heart. A beautiful voice and moving lyrics–what more could you ask of an artist!?!

  7. Rev. Bob Martin says:

    Mr .Lightfoot, I want to tell you how much I love our music. I have never had the opportunity to see and en joy your singing and music at any of your concerts; however, I think you are one of the best folk, folk-rock and country music artist in the world.
    Would you ever consider coming to Alaska for a concert? You would be most welcomed.
    Blessings and peace,
    Rev. Bob Martin

  8. Irene says:

    Got to see him twice. The first time in early 70’s at Filmore East (I believe) and the second in mid 00’s at Sussex NJ. Oh, do I love this man’s voice!!!!

  9. Bill Erhardt says:

    I got to see you at the Jubilee Theater in Calgary in late 1990’s Gordon. It was the first time I ever drove into Canada from Helena, Mt.
    I first heard your music at Danang South Vietnam and have followed your career ever since.
    Happy Birthday and many more Gordon from Bill Erhardt in Helena, Mt.

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