The passing of a dedicated folk musician
MUSIC | Gordon Lightfoot was a meticulous craftsman
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Long after Peter, Paul & Mary had faded into sepia and Bob Dylan had gone electric, Gordon Lightfoot kept the spirit of folk music alive on pop radio, scoring the last of his six U.S. Top 40 hits during the same year that Saturday Night Fever established the dominance of disco.
Lightfoot died on May 1. He was 84. When his hometown of Orillia, Ontario, honored him with a statue in 2015, he’d been a Canadian legend for the better part of 50 years, inspiring national pride with songs that bore witness to his native land’s history, spirit, and terrain.
A meticulous craftsman, he learned early to write his own lead sheets and developed a songwriterly diligence that earned him the respect of his peers. More than any other factor, it was this ability to block out the world and focus on matching melodies and words that saw him through the chaos that he brought upon himself by womanizing and drinking his way through the 1970s.
The first of his three marriages ended in divorce (its dissolution inspired his U.S. breakthrough, “If You Could Read My Mind”), and his relentless touring made him an absentee father more often than not. His drinking, meanwhile, lowered his resistance to groupies in general and to the opportunistic rock-scenester Cathy Evelyn Smith in particular. Seven years after their volatile affair, Smith was charged with involuntary manslaughter for her role in the overdose death of the comedian John Belushi.
Lightfoot, it seemed, had dodged a bullet.
In the meantime, he scored his second-biggest and most unlikely hit with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an elegiac, six-minute folk ballad that, were it not for the stranglehold that Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” had on the position, would’ve gone to No. 1.
He sobered up in 1982 and became as much of a gym rat as his schedule would allow. But by that point pop music had undergone an MTV-spearheaded revolution that kicked sensitive neo-folkies in their 40s to the curb. Lightfoot kept writing and recording, but his hit-making days were over.
Not so his days as a concert draw. He averaged more than 70 shows a year from 2010 to 2016. He also made a priority of repairing the family ties that he’d let fray.
He did not, however, seem inclined to revisit the mainline Protestant faith of his upbringing. His unironic 1980 outtake “Forgive Me Lord” was sandwiched, chronologically speaking, by the songs “Heaven Don’t Deserve Me” and “Return Into Dust,” both of which viewed eternal verities through an emphatically agnostic squint. Whether one of those three—and, if so, which one—played in his head as his end drew nigh, only those who could read his mind can say.