Growing Up With Gordon Lightfoot

I jumped in the car late last night to hear the announcer reporting that the legendary singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot had died.

After a few biographical details, he played “If You Could Read My Mind”, which is always the first song of his I think of, although not my most favorite and not his biggest hit.

Weirdly, the first song I heard this morning was his lesser-known 1972 tune, “Beautiful”.

Being a history nerd, I’ve always been partial to his songs about events, like “Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” (about an ore-hauling ship that sank in Lake Superior) or “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” (historian Pietre Berton once told Lightfoot he put “more into that song than I put in my book”, about the construction of Canada’s national railroad).

Mainly, though, he was known for songs about relationships, mostly troubled in some way.

Thinking about the man and his music, I realize now that I’ve gone through three stages of my life with Gordon Lightfoot, if I may get personal.

When I was a little kid, my parents tended to play AM stations in the house (and the car only had AM radio). In Boston, that meant WBZ and WHDH, and these stations are where my first love of radio grew. They combined frequent news and weather, with witty disc jockeys who spun the occasional, safe, soft-pop record. Gordon Lightfoot, the Bellamy Brothers, Glen Campbell, along with the Beatles and Supremes.

I heard these songs, but didn’t really listen to them.

Then, phase two. In my teens and 20s, my first radio jobs took me around New England to “lite rock” FM stations, where I was a baby DJ and played the above artists, along with the Carpenters, Anne Murray, Diana Ross, and others who bored me silly. However, a gig was a gig and I kept the music rolling.

Now, in phase three…I get it.

You can’t really “hear” Gordon Lightfoot until you have lived, and loved, and lost love. Then you get it.

Then you realize, the man’s a poet, a truthteller and a genius. To be honest, his songs used to make me sleepy, but now they cut to the quick.

Bob Dylan has said of Lightfoot: “I can’t think of any song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, I wish it would last forever.”

So, I want to thank you, Gordon Lightfoot. You don’t know me, I’m just one of the millions, but you did what Roberta Flack famously sang about:

“Strumming my pain with his fingers/singing my life with his words/Killing me softly with his song”



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