Gordon Lightfoot Influences

By Wayne Francis

Here is a list of some of the major influences on Lightfoot. While there are certainly other artists who had a lesser impact on him, these, based on comments from Lightfoot over the years, seem to be the people who had the greatest and most lasting effect.


Foster of course is the famous 19th century American songwriter with  songs to his credit such as "Swanee River", "Beautiful Dreamer", "Old Folks At Home", among others. Lightfoot and Foster share a romanticism and to quote Marco Adria from his book "Music Of Our Times" which has a chapter devoted to Lightfoot, "Lightfoot and Foster share a passion for taste, craftsmanship and the animation of song and folklore."

Lightfoot claims the common bond between his songs and Foster's are the "simplicity and individual character of each melody. We all took Foster songs in school and some of that rubbed off on me. I was always a fan of Stephen Foster."

There are even some direct parallels in Lightfoot's lyrics to Foster's: Lightfoot's "banjo in my hands" in "Biscuit City" to Foster's "banjo on my knee" from "Oh Susanna". "Biscuit City" in particular has been cited as a very Fosteresque song in both lyric and melody.

Some other Lightfoot/Foster similarities include, quoting Adria, "Foster wrote for the commercial market, without abandoning his innate artistic standards, just as Lightfoot has done. John Howard's reference to Foster in this regard applies equally to Lightfoot: 'The market never soiled Foster's work - it merely gave him a voice that could be understood.' Second, for Lightfoot and Foster alike, the autobiographical component is present in the songs, although most autobiographical detail is disguised or transformed by the exigencies of the well-made song. Third, both Lightfoot and Foster share a poetic stance of romanticism. In Foster's songs this is made clear in the expressions of longing (Old Folks At Home) and sensual imagery (Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair). In Lightfoot's work, romanticism is most evident in the contemplations of the Canadian wilderness, although the wilderness Lightfoot celebrates is not one that remains untouched by civilisation. For him, the romanticism of the wilderness is complete only when man has imparted order to it, as the famous line from the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" states: 'The green dark forest was too silent to be real.' Thus, it is not the Canadian prairies or Rockies that he praises, but the prairies and Rockies transformed by the steel rails. It is not the land that is noble, but the land sowed with the sweat and tears of the anonymous naavies. We can also see romanticism in the imaginative names for women he has created in his songs: Lavender, Cotton Jenny, Bitter Green, Sundown, Dream Street Rose, and Knotty Pine."


When Lightfoot first heard the classic "Weavers At Carnegie Hall" album in the early 60's, he said it had an immediate impact upon him and led him to explore the folk scene which he said was exactly the music he had been looking for to express himself.


Lightfoot has said that Gibson's 12-string stylings were something that he tried to emulate and Gibson's "Civil War Trilogy" became a starting point for Lightfoot's own "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" in terms of structure.


Dylan certainly seems to be Lightfoot's biggest influence. Lightfoot said that when Dylan came along it expanded the lyrical possibilities to virtual infinity and from that point on, freed from the longheld perceptions of what a song's subject matter should be, Lightfoot's writing really began to come
together and find it's own identity. Dylan in later years would return the compliment, by not only recording a Lightfoot song, but also by crediting Lightfoot with being one of the best songwriters around.

The Lightfoot/Dylan connection throughout the years has remained strong. Dylan presented Lightfoot with his induction into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame in 1986, so things seemed to arrive full circle. Along the way Lightfoot has recorded Dylan as well and played on a bill with Dylan in Toronto in 1975 and sang Dylan's "Ballad In Plain D" in "Renaldo And Clara", Dylan's 1977 movie. The two seem to take every opportunity to get together whenever their respective schedules have them in the same city at the same time.


Lightfoot said in a 1982 interview that of the current musical scene, only Leonard Cohen had any influence on him as an artist.


Lightfoot has singled out Springsteen as an influence over the years, even attending and meeting Springsteen at a Massey Hall concert during Springsteen's Ghost Of Tom Joad tour. Lightfoot places the Boss right up there alongside Dylan as a major influence, high praise indeed. But with the release of Lightfoot's 2020 album, Solo, Lightfoot said that Springsteen's spare sound on the Nebraska album was a major contributing factor to Lightfoot ultimately deciding to release Solo as a guitar/vocal album only.