By John A. McCurdy
In March 1966, music industry legend
Albert Grossman – then managing
the careers of rising stars Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary,
and Bob Dylan – engineered United Artists’ release of Gordon
Lightfoot’s first LP, Lightfoot! Recorded in New York in November 1964,
the album’s fourteen tracks captured, with stark and brooding
simplicity, Lightfoot’s signature sound – rich as oak, warm as spring
sunshine, quietly illuminating, self-effacing.
The opening track, ‘Rich
Man’s Spiritual’ – much like the other
thirteen songs – presents a caricature of Lightfoot, consumed by the
idea that he can buy his way into heaven if he puts himself in the way
of a little blues – just enough, that is, to establish a modicum of
credibility with the Lord. “Gonna buy me a poor man’s trouble / Yes and
Lord to lead me home,” he sings, “And when I get my trouble and woe /
Then homeward I will go / I’m gonna get a little trouble and woe to
lead me home.” Never suspecting that the blues might be real,
Lightfoot’s young man runs up against some truly unwanted suffering.
‘Long River,’ the album’s
second track, shows how the first certainty
lost is the constancy of young love when, after describing an idyllic
country home he laments: “And I’d give it all to you / If her love were
true / Where the long river flows / By my window.” In ‘The Way I Feel’
– the haunting track that follows – Lightfoot’s young man becomes a
“tall oak tree / Alone and crying” – a green-bowed home for his lover,
imagined as a young robin outgrowing her nest and flying away. The deep
sense of loss in ‘The Way I Feel’ looks forward in time to Lightfoot’s
1976 masterwork, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’
In ‘For Lovin’ Me,’
Lightfoot’s blistering sketch of disillusioned
young man turned callous womanizer, his character boasts to a new lover
already on the outs: “I’ve had a hundred more like you / So don’t be
blue / I’ll have a thousand before I’m through” - lost, like Dean
Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in hyper-masculine conquest
fantasies. Lightfoot’s reverent interpretation of Ewan McColl’s ‘The
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ follows, however, as womanizer turns
troubadour, singing a solemn ode the “the first time.”
From this point the feet of
Lightfoot’s Rich Man begin to touch the
earth, his troubadour self now humble enough to accept, and even
celebrate, nature’s cycles of life and death through a sweet rendition
of Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes.’ ‘Early Mornin’ Rain’ follows, arguably the
album’s most terrestrial track and Lightfoot’s greatest composition.
With an aching in his heart and his “pockets full of sand,” Lightfoot’s
troubadour, lying drunk in a patch of long grasses somewhere in sunny
California, watches helplessly as commercial jets ascend “far above the
clouds,” to a netherworld where the comforts of landscape give way to
sun-bright weightlessness. “You can’t jump a jet plane,” goes the songs
refrain, “Like you can a freight train / So I’d best be on my way / In
the early mornin’ rain.”*
Later, when it seems a
wayward soul will once again tell a heartbroken
lover, “That’s what you get for lovin’ me,” along comes Lightfoot’s
inspired interpretation of ‘Pride of Man,’ a protest ballad marked by
the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Singing “Can’t you see the flash of fire
/ Ten times brighter than the day,” Lightfoot warns Prometheus to “Turn
around / Go back down / Back the way you came” - to forfeit stealing
fire from the gods.
Concluding that “only God
can lead the people back into the earth
again,” Lightfoot moves into “Ribbon of Darkness,” where nuclear
apocalypse gives way to self-revelation, his troubadour grieving lost
love again, and going – as Neil Young would later put it – “Out of the
blue / And into the black.” Too late for forgiveness, and stung by a
dose of his own callous betrayal in ‘Oh, Linda,’ the album’s second
last track, the final cut, ‘Peaceful Waters,’ offers up a blessing for
“mankind” as Lightfoot trades the pain of love for the chalice of
spiritual faith. His Rich Man comes full circle, the blues leaving a
healthy sense of unease at the enormous difficulty of loving well.
* Many years later
Lightfoot would reveal that the song had been
written while caring for his first newborn. See the liner notes to the
Lightfoot Songbook compilation (Rhino-Atlantic, 1999).
Originally published in the Spring 2004
issue of Between the Lines, McMaster University’s undergraduate
It was the fall of 1964. Lightfoot enters a downtown New York
recording studio on a gloomy evening to begin work on his debut
album. They choose
a small room in the studio to record, thinking that the smaller room
capture the intimacy of Gordon accompanied only by two guitars and bass.
Rich Man's Spiritual is the first tune laid down on that night.
the type of song Lightfoot enjoyed playing live in those days, going
to his days as one half of the Two Tones, when they would close their
with Children Go Where I Send Thee, the traditional folk spiritual.
had also written other songs in that vein such as Where Are All The
Children, but Rich Man's Sprirtual was clearly his best song of that
Then it was Long River, with Bruce Langhorne, the highly sought after
session guitarist of that era, weaving beautifully with Lightfoot's
guitar. This song would be the first on record to document
Lightfoot's fascination with the wild and untamed beauty and solitude
that was Canada. And in
the last verse we find the singer telling us that he'd "give it all to
if her love were true". Ah yes, love and nature. A theme
would return to many times in the coming decades, with startlingly
The Way I Feel with its gentle folk guitar arrangement cradling the
tender lyrics of lost love and lonliness. That gloomy New York night
could have easily
provided a perfect backdrop for Lightfoot to convey every ounce of
that this song suggests.
Then into For Lovin' Me. By this time For Lovin' Me had already
been recorded by Ian & Sylvia and made a hit by Peter, Paul and
Mary. Now Lightfoot gives us the song in it's definitive, driving
the other recordings of the song by other artists gave the song a
interpretation, Lightfoot gives us a harder edged delivery, in a style
continues to play the song in right up to the present.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. A very nice cover of the
classic that later became a hit for Roberta Flack. Lightfoot's
is set apart by his stunning vocal.
Phil Ochs' Changes is next. Lightfoot and Ochs were friends and
the already established Ochs was a strong Lightfoot supporter. Ochs
wrote Changes while in Toronto and Lightfoot was one of the first to
hear and record the
song. Check out the article Ochs wrote about Lightfoot in 1965 in
magazine. The article is in the FAQ files.
And then Early Morning Rain! What more can be said about this
hasn't already been said? Covered by the likes of Dylan and
it was written in 1964, but Lightfoot drew upon an experience some six
earlier when he was studying music in Los Angeles in 1958 and he found
at LAX one early morning, more than a little homesick.
Another tale of bittersweet longing, but in a much more playful style,
Rail Blues. Lightfoot early on displayed a restlessness in his
where he was either trying to get back to home and loved ones, or to
the same. This tension between these two basic longings give much
Lightfoot's writing that universal appeal, whereby so many of us can
in a very direct way.
On Sixteen Miles, Lightfoot showcases a beautifully, effortless melody
on the surface seems so simple, yet it is deceptively discrete.
song finds Lightfoot seeking comfort in the wilderness from "an old
not unlike Long River and although he vows he "won't remember her at
we realize that the urge to return will again resurface, setting up the
attempt to reconcile or move on, and another song.
Lightfoot supposedly wrote I'm Not Sayin' while watching a hockey game
TV. A strong driving melody, with some great guitar licks
David Rea that Red Shea and Terry Clements would continue to embellish
many years. The subject matter and sentiment here is not far
from For Lovin' Me.
Another cover, this time Hamilton Camp's apocalyptic, Pride Of
Man. Lightfoot would continue to perform this song live into the
For every For Lovin' Me or I'm Not Sayin' there must be a Ribbon Of
Darkness. Lightfoot's stance in the former songs is softened by
his ackowledgement in
songs like Ribbon Of Darkness of the true nature of relationships and
peril and hurt that are the consequence. Lightfoot also
demonstrates some fine whistling in this song that would resurface on
later songs like Brave Mountaineers and Ghosts Of Cape Horn.
Lightfoot often would whistle
on many of his early demo recordings to provide an instrumental break
he was playing only guitar without accompaniment.
Oh, Linda was and is a distinct recording in Lightfoot's long
career. Backed only by an interesting bass guitar line, Lightfoot
delivers a knock out vocal.
The album closes with the hopeful Peaceful Waters. It comes
an almost folk music hymn. "May this world find a resting place,
peaceful waters flow."
Lightfoot! was really Lightfoot's only true folk album, with the
acoustic guitars played by David Rea and Bruce Langhorne, two of the
best folk music stylists of the day, along with Lightfoot's own folk
influenced playing and
last, but certainly not least, the superb acoustic bass throughout the
played by Bill Lee (father of film director, Spike Lee). By his
album more Nashville influences are creeping into the sound, and
there would always be a folk aspect to Lightfoot's music, in my
his first album is his purest folk effort. Lightfoot would
in the early 80's that the folk label that persisted with him
his career was causing his records, which were much more rock natured
that time, to miss out on radio because programmers still had him
as a strictly folk artist.
Lightfoot!, although recorded in late 1964, was not released until
January of 1966. The time in between was spent by his management,
satisfactory record deal. Although he signed with United Artists, a
truly satisfactory record deal would not come about until five albums
he made the historic one million dollar signing with Warner Brothers in
the company he has remained with to this day.