Minstrel of the Dawn

Music fans, especially Canadian ones, are mourning Gordon Lightfoot this week. The singer-songwriter, who died on May 1 at the age of eighty-four, occupied a unique place in our culture. He had a better voice than Bob Dylan or Neil Young, a better ear for melody than Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, and a more modest public profile than Kris Kristofferson or Paul Simon. Lightfoot was familiar and admired, in short, but he was not a rock star. Born in 1938, he was older than many comparable figures whose careers began later in the 1960s or early 70s, and his music and persona tended toward a middle-of-the-road, easy-listening sensibility that didn’t always meet the critical standards of cool. Yet his repertoire of work that nearly everyone knows is immense, and it’s now poignant to listen to a greatest hits playlist and realize how many songs that today have become the emotional background music for an entire population originated with him alone.

His obituarists reflect that Lightfoot, more than most of his peers, drew inspiration from the geography of his homeland. “Alberta Bound,” “Christian Island (Georgian Bay),” “Mother of a Miner’s Child,” “The Mountains and Mary Ann,” “Pussy Willows, Cat-tails,” “Home From the Forest,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” and of course “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” are all tied to the Canadian landscape, Canadian weather, or Canadian history. Even pieces like “Did She Mention My Name,” “The Pony Man,” “Brave Mountaineers,” and “The Patriot’s Dream,” less specific regionally, still evoke an instantly recognizable lost world of tree-lined small Ontario towns, pre-sprawl and pre-strip malls, like an Alice Munro story set to music (Lightfoot was from Orillia, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Simcoe). Canada is a big and sparsely populated country, whose inhabitants feel keenly their place on a vast terrain, and Gordon Lightfoot articulated that feeling: I remember a huge autumn storm that passed through my city at the junction of Lake Superior and Lake Huron one night when I was eight years old, and I remember the next morning’s news of a missing freighter somewhere in the cold waters of Whitefish Bay, just to the north. A few months later, Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was on the radio, immortalizing the same storm and the same freighter.

Though he of course found fame internationally, it may have helped that the peak period of Lightfoot’s career coincided with a new spirit of Canadian nationalism that arose after the introduction of the country’s red-and-white maple leaf banner in 1965, the well-attended Expo 67 in Montreal, and the widespread popularity of the progressive Pierre Trudeau, elected Prime Minister in 1968 (the same era’s mandated Canadian content regulations in broadcasting and the arts likely didn’t hurt, either). Gordon Lightfoot’s songs defined a Canadian identity that was then gradually pulling away from its British origins, and more defiantly contrasting itself with the American elephant to the south. All that innocent pride seems pretty dated nowadays – Pierre Trudeau and his policies in time became deeply disliked by large portions of the electorate – but for the generations of parents and children alive in those years, Lightfoot was Canada’s balladeer, his rich vocals, chiming twelve-string and rugged image epitomizing the fresh confidence of a maturing nation.

Lightfoot scored the family road trips of my childhood. His style of polished folk fit in well with the other 8-tracks we brought with us in the car, like Pete Seeger, Marty Robbins, Simon and Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Eddy Arnold, Mario Lanza, and others. It was relatively modern music, as far as my middle-aged mom and dad were concerned, that nevertheless didn’t cross the line into self-indulgent “poetry” or heavy rock ‘n’ roll (although I always liked “Black Day in July” and “Baby It’s Alright,” which were pretty kick-ass for Lightfoot). And there was something about his proud, pastoral acoustic soundtrack wafting out of the speakers that complemented the solemn beauty of the vast northern expanses we traveled over, just as the brooding majesty of the land itself seemed to be a visual accompaniment to the songs. “Carefree Highway,” indeed. Dad, Mom, and now Gordon Lightfoot are gone, but the memories and the music, like the land, are eternal.