Gordon Lightfoot: 12 of His Finest Musical Moments

As news spread May 1 of Canadian songwriting and singing legend Gordon Lightfoot’s death, realizing the full impact of his artistry and the breadth of his catalog felt all the more jolting. To hear Lightfoot’s virtuosic work is to have been pierced by its beauty.

In a 2020 interview with this writer, Lightfoot rhetorically questioned his own storied craft. “Am I psychologically invested and involved?” he quizzed himself. “Yes. Are these songs me? I guess. It’s very important that I do the work that I do to get me there, writing these songs. All the poetic license allowed me from those around me helps. But when they ask where it is that all of this comes from, I still always say it is my imagination.” Then, with a sense of gallows humor, Lightfoot teased, “When I croak, will people remember that, remember my work?”

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They will, from the gently trembling, sensualist tone of Lightfoot’s baritone vocals to the frankly soulful lyrics, and woozily folksy sound of his 12-string acoustic guitar-based songs. Here are 12 great musical moments from the pen and the voice of Gordon Lightfoot.

Nico, “I’m Not Sayin’” (1965)
Already a Canadian national treasure by this point, Lightfoot moved his fortunes and base of operations to the U.S., where he signed with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and wrote and recorded his own version of this open-heartedly romantic single. Yet it was Nico – in a solo effort apart from the Velvet Underground – whose version of “I’m Not Sayin’” cuts deeper. For all her usual icy display (to say nothing of Jimmy Page’s production and his 12-string guitar), Nico’s version of Lightfoot’s words simply runs hotter.

Gordon Lightfoot, “Early Morning Rain” (1966)
While fellow Canadian folkies Ian and Sylvia Tyson had a hit with their version of “Early Morning Rain,” Lightfoot’s jangly and nicely orchestrated take on aching hearts, growing pains, roaring engines and drunkenly missing loved ones is simply bolder that that hit. Backed by a plaintive pedal steel guitar, you can hear the beginnings of Lightfoot’s baritone vocal stylings.

Gordon Lightfoot, “Bitter Green” (1968)
Stoic yet soulful, and gently countrified, Lightfoot showed off his manner for literarily portraying the women in his life (or his imagination). Plus, he squeezes the word “eiderdown” into a tune without sounding pretentious. Whoa.

Gordon Lightfoot, “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970)
One of the most smartly told tales of love gone asunder, Lightfoot’s emotional distance from impending (real life) divorce questions the very existence of how two people broke down in the first place with “I’m just trying to understand the feelings that we lack.” Also: killer, supple melody.

Gordon Lightfoot, “Your Love’s Return (Song for Stephen Foster)” (1970)
An achingly gorgeous and arching melody line finds Lightfoot’s vocals raised higher by one octave in his quest to come home to the one he loves. Still tearful to hear.

Elvis Presley, “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me” (1973)
Johnny Cash did a great and stony job of covering Lightfoot’s paean to a lover’s kiss, but Presley’s sounds ever-so chilled, cocky and relaxed-fit cool — hiccupping vocals and all — on his gentle rockabilly version recorded in Nashville.

Gordon Lightfoot, “Sundown” (1974)
Lightfoot did two things when he introduced “Sundown” into his catalog. He brought electric instrumentation and plucky bluesy guitar licks to a soft, slippery melody. And Gordon’s slithering vocal line, still stoic, managed to spill over into a steamy display of sexuality while writing about troubled romance: “Getting lost in loving is your first mistake.”

Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway” (1974)
Naming a song after highways and being carefree was a sure signal it would lead to one of Lightfoot’s most generously open-throated, wondrously airy melodies, with a hint of a country lilt.

Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976)
Respect must be paid to this statuesque epic in both its 6:30 album version and its 5:57 single (!) edit – a track worth its own feature. In a lean-to-the-bone melody filled with squirrelly synths and loping pedal steels, Lightfoot tells a literary tale of the final voyage of a ship in almost sequential detail while rhyming Gitche Gumee more than a few times. Mighty stuff, this.

Gordon Lightfoot, “14 Karat Gold” (1980)
A Beatles-worthy electric guitar-strewn bridge and a silken, glossy arrangement offer Lightfoot a chance “to cash his chips” and “be cool as ice,” as he creates a dozen wizened metaphors for life and gambling.

Gordon Lightfoot, “Ring Them Bells” (1993)
Forever a fan of Bob Dylan (and Dylan a fan of “Gordo,” as he once said he couldn’t find a Lightfoot song he didn’t like), Lightfoot waited until the top of the 1990s to cover his contemporary hero with one of the Minnesota’s Bard’s loveliest songs – and with a hint of Bob’s twang in his vocals.

Gordon Lightfoot, “The Laughter We Seek” (2020)
For his last recorded album, “Solo,” Lightfoot’s baritone has softened, his melody line becomes a repeated mantra, and his yearning to connect, to find joy and romanticism – even while his lovers go their own way – looks to find all of the right answers in “an unsightly world.”

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