Toronto Globe And Mail - Saturday June 18, 1966
LIGHTFOOT: The Lyrical Loner - by John MacFarlane
About a month ago, Bernie Fiedler was entertaining a few members of the local folk music fraternity at his home in downtown Toronto. The guest of honor was folk singer-composer Gordon Lightfoot, a fair-haired farm boy from Orillia, who earlier that evening had drawn 500 paying customers into the Riverboat, Fiedler's Yorkville coffee house.
He had sung all of the Lightfoot standards that night - Early Morning Rain, For Lovin' Me, I'm Not Sayin', Ribbon Of Darkness - and a half dozen or so new tunes. One of them, a song he'd written only a few weeks earlier, caught the attention of Ian Tyson (of Ian and Sylvia) who had stopped by to catch the last set. (Tyson can claim a paternal interest in Lightfoot's career. In 1964, he brought his New York manager, John Court, to hear Lightfoot at the Purple Onion. Two weeks later Lightfoot had a contract.)
Tyson went over to a weary Lightfoot in the Fiedler living room to inquire about the new tune. "It's a good one, Gordon. What's it called?"
"Go My Way. It's new."
"I'd like to hear it again. Why don't you go and get your old guitar and play it for me?"
It was 4 in the morning, but two minutes later, Lightfoot, now looking as if nothing could be further from his mind than sleep, returned carrying a guitar and began to sing his latest composition.
The incident is notable because it capsules Lightfoot's consuming involvememt in his music. On stage or off, he loves to sing. He's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week musician. At 27, he is possessed of a
driving ambition to append his name to the lexicon of American folk music.
As a composer, Lightfoot is already half way there. Of the 75 songs he's written in the past four years, at least four have finished in the money. Early Morning Rain has been recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Ian and Sylvia, Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio. In 1964, the Peter, Paul and Mary recording of For Lovin' Me soared into the US national Top 20. And in 1965, Marty Robbins' recording of Ribbon Of Darkness, which won the year's ASCAP writer-publisher award, was on the country and western charts for seven months.
In two years, Lightfoot's feel for melody and his way with lyrics have placed him alongside such other folk music composers as Eric Anderson, Tom Paxton, Billy Ed Wheeler, Hamilton Camp and Ian Tyson - within shooting distance, but no more, of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.
As a performer (he says if he woke up one morning and couldn't sing he'd chuck it all and become a plumber), he still has a long way to go. While he can pack them in in Toronto - last February he drew a crowd of 3,500 to a one-night-only performance at Varsity Stadium - he has yet to make any lasting impression south of the border. He is still looking for the hit single, popular music's holy grail, to make it happen.
Someone dubbed his singing style "country-and-Lightfoot", which is pretty accurate. His singing voice is strong and resonant with just a wisp of nasal country twang. He's a competent, though not outstanding, guitarist, but then he hadn't as much as picked one up until he was 21. (At 15, he was
listening to jazz and wanted nothing more than to a be a professional drummer.) But his forte is an easy, winning stage presence - a quality so essential in the coffee houses.
Although he does a little TV work in Toronto (he did a spot on the Johnny Carson show last summer), concerts and coffee houses are his bread and butter. In the past 10 months, he has played the Oddessey in Boston, The Second Fret and The Inn in Philadelphia, The Living End in Detroit,
Gaslight South in Miami, Le Cave in Cleveland and L'Hibou in Ottawa. Last summer, he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. In November he made Town Hall in New York and in February he did a concert tour of the British Isles with Ian and Sylvia.
When he isn't on the road, Lightfoot lives in Toronto with his wife and two children. In the study where he spends about six hours a day writing songs between cups of coffee, he sat this week surrounded by bundles of sheet music, records and tape recordings, musing about the future.
"The thing is to try and make it on your own terms. I could write rock 'n' roll tunes...you know, Death After The Senior Prom. But I'm looking for my own sound, my own kind of music. It's not that I don't like rock 'n' roll. It's just that I don't want to follow any beaten paths. I want to make it with a sound that's completely me."
The completely Lightfoot sound has found no better expression than in Early Morning Rain, a song he wrote in three hours on a hot summer afternoon in 1964. Some of his other songs - Ribbon Of Darkness and For Lovin' Me - have had more commercial success. But none captures as successfully as Early Morning Rain the poetic imagery that characterize Lightfoot's lyrics.
"To write a song like that you have to like earth movers, big ships, jet planes and locomotives. You've got to get a charge out of seeing a big machine work. I guess it's really an appreciation of the power of big machines. It also manages to capture the romantic values, which I suppose makes it a good song.
"Everything I've written has come from something that's happened to me, something I've seen, something that's impressed me. Take a song like Talkin' High Steel. I spent some time with the highriggers at the Toronto Dominion Centre. They were on about the 48th floor at that time. Anyway, I got to know them, I got to understand what they're all about, how they think, so I could write about them."
In a field where most of his contemporaries are writing songs of social and political protest, lyrics like that make Lightfoot something of an enigma. When his first album was released six weeks ago, the Baltimore News American commented approvingly, "Unlike any of his American counterparts, Lightfoot hasn't the slightest notion of protest in any of his songs."
Not quite. Lightfoot writes protest songs all right, not about war and peace or the duplicity of conventional morality. He has tried (The Lost Children and Echoes Of Heroes) but somehow they don't ring true. Selma, Alabama and the war in Vietnam are outside his orbit.
In essence, his is a protest against urban complexity, against the crushing impersonality of Metropolis. It is a lament for the Walter Mittys, the men who sit behind desks adding figures without ever knowing why, without ever knowing how it feels to stand back and survey the product of a day's labor. Urban man is a breadwinner.
"I used to spend a lot of time on farms. All my relatives are farmers and I guess I've been influenced by them. They always seemed to be having so much fun. They were so carefree I always hated like hell to leave. I used to go away talking like them. Everyone had a job to do and did it. Everyone
Lightfoot is a romantic. "I guess you could call me a cosmopolitan hick." He identifies with simple people - the kind of people who do simple jobs, who love the land.
Like anyone who makes a living writing, Lightfoot knows what it's like to lie awake at night worrying about tomorrow, worrying about the next melody, the next lyric. Wondering whether tomorrow will be the day the pen runs dry. Only time will tell how good he is. But the final arbiter of the worth of
his work must be the man himself.
"I know I have written good folk songs, but I'm not the best in the world. There are a lot of people better equipped - smarter, more complex. Me, I'm just a country boy doin' the best I can." Amen.