Gordon Lightfoot Biography

Canadian folksinger, songwriter, and guitarist An impressive singer and songwriter, Lightfoot produced more than three hundred songs that are firmly rooted in the folk-music idiom, with references to rock, blues, and country styles.

Born: November 17, 1938; Orillia, Ontario, Canada

The Life

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr., was born in the small Ontario town of Orillia in 1938. At an early age, he began singing in the church choir. He continued to sing as a young teenager, competing in music competitions sponsored by the local radio station. After graduation, he attended the Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles for fundamental training in harmony. Upon his return to Canada, Lightfoot moved to Toronto, and he gained experience performing in small venues. He became involved in folk music, and he began to attract the attention of some influential artists, including Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elvis Presley, and Marty Robbins, who had success with Lightfoot’s early songs. Lightfoot quickly rose to the top of the folk music scene in Canada and the United States, performing concerts consisting of his own songs. As his recording career began to flourish, Lightfoot’s fame spread throughout the 1960’s, reaching a peak in popularity with several hit songs in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Following a health scare in 2002, Lightfoot took some time off, but he returned to the stage and recording studio successfully in 2004. He is the recipient of many awards, including seventeen Juno Awards, and he is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2003 Lightfoot was made Companion of the Order of Canada.

The Music Set in the genre of the American popular song, Lightfoot’s compositions number more than three hundred songs, and more than two hundred have been recorded. Most of Lightfoot’s songs can be classified into three broad categories: love ballads, historical epic ballads, and songs on the human condition. Lightfoot’s texts stand as poetry, independent of his music. His lyrics are in rhyme and in simplemeter. His subjects include the pain of unrequited love and observations on the human experience. Pastoral themes account for a large percentage of his output. Many texts function as social commentary, prophetic in warnings about waste and abuse of resources, particularlyhumanresources.Afew songs are intended to stoke a sense of national pride or to serve as educational reminders of historic events, events with which Lightfoot felt a personal connection. Lightfoot’s songs usually reflect the typical folk-song form (verses and refrain). In some cases the epic nature of the text required amore sectional approach, but even there Lightfoot tended to reuse musical material. Musically, the texture of the songs is the typical melody-accompaniment common to folk songs. The harmony is mostly diatonic, with some chromatic shading. Lightfoot’s impressive singing ability, fostered by his years as a choral singer in his youth, allows for a long melodic line.

His baritone vocal range gives him great melodic flexibility, with resonant lower notes and sweet-sounding upper notes. Lightfoot accompanies his vocal melodies on the guitar, both six- and twelvestring varieties. In a Lightfoot song, the guitar functions as the harmonic background onto which the vocal melody is cast. Typically, the twelve-string guitar strums a repetitive, rhythmic figure of chords, while the six-string guitar is played fingerstyle, using a repeated arpeggio pattern with alternating bass notes and outlining the chords. Early in his career, Lightfoot formed a band consisting of a bass player and an additional guitar player, and he later added a keyboardist and a drummer. These instruments complemented the basic guitar accompaniment. Often the sound of an orchestral string section was included in recordings, and Lightfoot sometimes uses a synthesized version (played by the keyboardist) in live performances. The drums are usually employed for atmospheric purposes; Lightfoot tends to avoid the primal-beat concept of contemporary rock music. Love Ballads. Aprototypical Lightfoot love ballad, “IfYouCould ReadMyMind” rose to the top of the U.S. charts in 1971. The text has a regular meter, and it is rhymed.

The form is typical of popular songs, with verses and a refrain. It tells the story of an intimate relationship damaged by infidelity, expressed from the view of onemember of the couple. The melody is provided by Lightfoot’s baritone voice, and the accompaniment is multilayered: A six-string guitar played by Lightfoot provides the arpeggiated chordal pattern, while a second guitar weaves a virtuosic yet complementary solo line into the texture. There is a bass, providing harmonic and rhythmic clarity, and in performances a string section is synthesized. The tempo is quick, but the atmosphere of the song is soft and quiet. Other songs in this style are “Talkin’ in Your Sleep” (1971), “Beautiful” (1972), “I’m Not Supposed to Care” (1976), and “Spanish Moss” (1976). Historical Epic Ballads. Lightfoot is well known for his song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976), which tells the story of one of the most tragic maritime disasters in U.S. history. The form of the song is simple: seven verses, each followed by a repeated instrumental refrain, with an instrumental introduction and ending. The text is rhymed, and it is in regular meter. The melody incorporates a short, repeated rhythmic figure, taken from one of the folk-song types of the maritime tradition, the sea chanty. The accompaniment, with loud drums and a blues-oriented solo electric guitar, contributes to the overall atmosphere, creating a musical picture of the great storm encountered by the ship and its crew on their fateful voyage.

Other historical epic ballads by Lightfoot are ”Ballad of the Yarmouth Castle” (1969), “Black Day in July” (1968), and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” (1967), written on commission for the Canadian National Railroad in honor of its one hundredth anniversary. Songs on the Human Condition. “Sundown” reached number one on the Billboard chart in the summer of 1974. The song departs from Lightfoot’s usual style with its reference to the blues idiom, complete with an improvised guitar solo. Nevertheless, it retains the typical folk-song verse-andrefrain structure. The text is about loneliness. In “Sundown,” Lightfoot indirectly criticizes the social climate of the 1970’s sexual revolution, developing the poetic symbol of sundown into a metaphor for loneliness. The connection with the blues underscores the general apprehension portrayed in the song. Other songs on the human condition by Lightfoot are “Summer Side of Life” (1971), “Circle of Steel” (1972), “Don Quixote” (1972), and “Rainy Day People” (1974). Musical Legacy Lightfoot’s performing career spans more than six decades, and during that time many performing artists have recorded his songs. In 2004 a group of Canadian performers collaborated on a tribute album, titled Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, each choosing one Lightfoot song for the project.

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