Jump to content
Gibson Brands Forums

Yes. 40 Years ago today


Recommended Posts

Tom Russell...



Lightfoot`s Guitar


“Remember that guitar in a museum in Tennessee?....The name plate on the glass brought back 20 melodies…and the scratches on the face told of all the times he’d fell…singing up the stories he could tell.” John Sebastian (Stories We Could Tell)


There’s a book by David Gahr. Out of print. Inside is a photo of Gordon Lightfoot’s song list, taped to the top of his Gibson 12 string guitar at Newport in 1965. The songs are written in ink, smeared from sweat or rain; or maybe they‘re late-night motel bourbon stains. This was back when people sang and swapped songs in rooms full of cigarette smoke; dawn light seeping through the yellow window shades.


There‘s almost 80 songs listed on this paper scrap, scotch-taped to the antique guitar wood: his own classics: Early Morning Rain, The Way I Feel, Ribbon of Darkness, and For Lovin' Me; and Dylan covers: Girl From the North Country, Hollis Brown, Blowin' in the Wind, Don’t Think Twice; country-western gems : El Paso, The Auctioneer and Six Days on the Road; Folk covers like Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds and Red Velvet, and folk standards like Old Blue . A few rockaabilly numbers. That mix! Folk, Blues, Country, Gospel, Rockabilly and Rock and Roll.


If there is any mystery where great songwriters come from, this tear-stained list is a black and white document of the homework. Lightfoot sang and wrote from a deeply rooted knowledge of roots music. Then he rolled and wrote his own songs. Still does….


But let‘s move forward 35 years to a folk festival in Ontario, where they‘re in the midst of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute. Lightfoot had been in hospital for two months recovering from an aneurysm. The prognosis ain't good. Suddenly the crowd parts, like the Red Sea, and people are shrieking and applauding, and here’s Lightfoot himself, walking through the crowd with a guitar case. Damn, it’s Jesus coming to town on a mule, armed with an antique wooden machine gun. Then he’s on stage, singing an old song. People are weeping. Quite a moment. I had the chills.


Lightfoot waves and retreats to a trailer dressing room and disappears. The door slams. The applause is deafening. The only problem is my guitar is in that dressing room, and I’m on stage in 10 minutes for the tribute. I politely knocked on the trailer door, and Lightfoot bid me come in. He was sitting in the corner, grizzled and shakey-legged, smoking a cigarette. He looks at me: “What song you gonna sing out there, kid?” I said, “Your song, For Lovin’ Me.”. He motions toward his guitar with his cigarette. “Here, take my guitar and sing a little for me. I wanna see if you’ve got it right.” (I thought, holy ****. I’m auditioning for Gordon Lightfoot. Heavy dues.)


I picked up his revered old Martin axe; it glowed in my hands. My fingers burned. I sang a verse or two of his wonderful song. “That was great,” he said. “You sing it great, kid. Go out there and kill em”…. I handed Lightfoot back his old Martin and glided out of the room. Later on he made a point of coming up to me and telling me how much he enjoyed my version, and my work with Ian Tyson on Navajo Rug . I thought back to that old stained set list on his 12 string at Newport in 65. And all the motel rooms and miles and the dignity of the man. A songwriter. It was like running into Homer, and he hands you his lute.


A few troubadours still walk among us, with stained set lists taped to the top of their road battered axes. Old guitars soak up every room and song and situation they’ve been involved with…and oh, the stories they can tell. For a moment, in Lightfoot’s dressing room, I knew I was at the center of my universe. I knew why I was a songwriter. Amen.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There have been so many great Canadian musicians; Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and Gordon Lightfoot were all favorites of mine back in the day. I wasn't as taken by the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as I was Gordon's Sundown album and the song Sundown itself but it IS a great piece of folk song writing. I read somewhere once that he is/was excruciatingly susceptible to stage fright which would probably somewhat explain his need for liquid courage and being blasted on stage. Forty years goes by pretty fast huh?


Let's not forget Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker while we're making up lists like that. They pretty much introduced Lightfoot and his songs to folkies like me in the mid-60's.


Lightfoot wrote some great songs (like Early Morning Rain) and some that are mostly pop songs (such as "If You Could Read my Mind"). Not that I have anything against pop songs. Jimmy Webb wrote one or two of those.


Ironically, I saw both Ian and Sylvia and Lightfoot around the same time in the late 60's. Lightfoot played the cherryburst B45-12 (I remember it because my old J-45 had just come back from Gibson with a new cherryburst top, which I hated).


Normally I'll tip my hat to the composer's version of songs like these, but I think Ian and Sylvia's cover version of Early Morning Rain is better, in part thanks to a really sweet fingerpicked lead on the D-28.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Lawdy, I still hate that song.

Couldn't have said it better myself. Wait, guess I already did.


Just to pile on, I blame this song for somehow convincing Gordon that he should sing through his nose. I don't believe his nasally drone appeared in full force until this song, but if you listen to much of his post E.F. work, it's in there a lot. While watching him sing Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind in the 2000 live clips, he seems to intentionally pucker his lips to force this nasal quality. Why oh why oh why?


Must have had every album of his before the release of E.F., and really liked his singing prior to the existence of that darn song! Okay, time to purge the system by listening to Daylight Katy, a good one that surfaced late.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Fast forward a few years, I produced and booked many acts into the college town where I was, and Lightfoot was one of them. Must've been during his darker days because he was nearly totally bombed on alcohol for the show, and put on a rather miserable performance.

Yes, I saw Gordon twice within a few years in the very early '70s, being a huge fan of his work at the time.


On the first occasion, he was sober, and the performance was stellar. The second time he had clearly been drinking, and it was a sad thing to see, as overall it was a mess.


Thankfully when they were on their game, those three guys made some beautiful music.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

How could I have forgotten Ian and Sylvia?! I discovered them roundabout when Judy Collins covered Someday Soon which was popular right when I was moving to Colorado. I'm not sure but I think they were the inspiration to the generation of Canadian singers following just after them which is my generation so I only found out about them through those I was listening to. Great songwriting.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", to me, is comparable to the "The City of New Orleans".

Epic songs that will long be remembered after all of us are gone.

What the City of New Orleans is to trains, the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is to Interlake shipping. (That last sentence is a joke, but TWOTEF is truly a great song.)

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...