While reading a book about the Wu-Tang Clan Monday evening, I was pondering what old-school hip-hop rabbit hole I’d be descending later – perhaps Eric B. & Rakim or maybe Big Daddy Kane – when I jumped on Twitter to learn that Gordon Lightfoot had died.
And just like that, my mood switched from intense New York Rap rap to easy-going Canadian folk.
Gordon Lightfoot – such a captivating combination of baritone vocals, 12-string guitar and beautifully understated songwriting. (Is anything really more Canadian than being beautifully understated?)
Of course, megahits like “Sundown” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” spring immediately to mind. They were certainly the first two Gord songs I knew, but his legacy lies in so much more than these.
I can’t claim to be any kind of Lightfoot superfan who’ll point you to some obscure album track, but for me, it’s hard to find a more quintessentially Gord song than “Early Mornin’ Rain.”
Drawn from relatively early in his career, written in 1964, the song is straightforward in its delivery. You notice little more than Gord’s lyrics and his ever-present 12-string.
As critics have suggested, the line “You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train” suggests the hobos (and hobo songs) of yesteryear. And so it fits that when you listen to the song on his 1966 debut “Lightfoot!” you flip to side two and find “Steel Rail Blues.”
Check out this live clip – from the BBC in 1969 – and you find two of the things I absolutely love about watching a Lightfoot live performance.
First, there’s the way he shaped his mouth to make note sounds just the way he wanted. I’ve truly never seen another singer sing in quite the way that Lightfoot did. It’s a little odd, but a treat to observe.
Secondly, there’s the way he strums like mad at that 12-string. I’ve never really understood how someone’s hands can be going 100-miles-per-hour while his mouth is keeping it low-key, holding notes so long. I guess there’s a reason I’m not a singer/guitar player. My body and brain don’t work that way.
But Gordon Lightfoot’s did, and we’re left with a rich musical legacy for it.
Quick side note: If they make a biopic of Lightfoot, the star needs to be Chris Pratt.
Thanks for all the gold, Gord. May this ribbon of darkness be a peaceful one for you.
Postscript (Tuesday, May 2): At some point after I posted this and went to bed last night, I had two people reach out to me on Twitter.
One is old friend and BG veteran Caine Gardner, who is more enamored of Lightfoot's music than I am. It looks as though my post may have been what tipped him off to Gord's death and led him down a path of watching YouTube videos well into the night. One of the "good" things about losing music legends is you have their music right there to bring comfort.
The other was from an author named Alan Page (not the Vikings defensive tackle-turned Minnesota Supreme Court Justice). Page, who is a lawyer like his namesake, published a book in 2014 called "Enter the Wu-Tang: How Nine Men Changed Hip-Hop Forever." In it, he notes that the Wu-Tang track "Method Man" samples Lightfoot's "Sundown." I'm not proud to say that I had never made the connection until I received his tweet.
Thank you for reading and for reaching out, Mr. Page. I will be ordering your book very soon.
I guess that's the beauty of social media (despite its many, many flaws) — we can comfort each other and make connections.