Study Guide

Gordon (Meredith) Lightfoot

Gordon (Meredith) Lightfoot Essay - Critical Essays

Lightfoot, Gordon (Meredith)

Introduction

Gordon (Meredith) Lightfoot 1938–

Canadian songwriter.

Lightfoot is one of the few songwriters who emerged during the folk music revival of the early 1960s and is still successful. Critics attribute his enduring popularity to his ability to elevate ordinary subjects into meaningful lyrics. Lightfoot's best works are ballads about the history and natural splendor of Canada, and his travel songs are described as compassionate, eloquent, and honest. His recent albums also include songs of bittersweet love affairs, possibly reflecting his troubled private life.

Lightfoot was a major figure in Canadian folk music several years before he became well known in the United States. He first gained attention for his compositions "For Lovin' Me" and "Early Morning Rain," which were recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary and became popular successes. Lightfoot gained international recognition with the release of "If You Could Read My Mind" in 1970, but his most important popular breakthrough came in 1974 with the success of Sundown. The songs on this album explore social, sexual, and spiritual topics, and the imagery has been described as evocative and graphic. Although Lightfoot has yet to match the commercial success of Sundown, his graceful, honest lyrics continue to touch the emotions of his ever-growing following.

Pete Welding

One of the handsomest, most perfectly conceived and executed albums I've heard in recent months is Did She Mention My Name?… Lightfoot is a romantic, to be sure, but he is a clear-eyed realist at the same time; the combination results in songs that are lyrical, full of tenderness and compassion, but above all real, honest, and totally without artifice. The whole album is a gas, but especially memorable are the lovely Pussywillows, Cat-tails; The Last Time I Saw Her; The Mountain and Maryann, and the title song, Did She Mention My Name? Unqualifiedly recommended. This is in every respect an essential set.

Pete Welding, in his review of "Did She Mention My Name?" in down beat (copyright 1969; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 36, No. 5, March 6, 1969, p. 29.

Janet Maslin

Gordon Lightfoot may never seem to be doing anything all that unusual—his melodies tend to be simple, his subjects seldom original, his voice is nice enough but rarely lends itself to anything fancy, and in fact the whole genre he works in is anything but new. But Lightfoot, unlike virtually all other folk artists who started out successful in the early Sixties, has managed to mellow so gracefully (and without any need for a current comeback, or any gratuitous shots at rock and roll) that he's at his absolute strongest right now, as Don Quixote and the album before it [Summer Side of Life] bear witness. Even though—or perhaps because—what he does isn't nearly as unusual as the fact that he does it so well….

[Part] of his appeal must certainly stem from his considerable gift for songwriting, which is easy to underrate. He combines the kind of voice that never seems to do his material justice with deceptive simplicity, a highly sophisticated ear for clever rhyme structures, and a unique knack for elevating subjects that could easily have been mundane. And, prolific as he's been over the past ten years, Lightfoot has never degenerated into hackdom. His writing, like the rest of what goes into his recordings, has improved steadily with age….

Certain structural strains from the past two albums [If You Could Read My Mind and Summer Side of Life] tend to repeat themselves here, such as...

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The Canadian Composer

Don Quixote, from beginning to end, is a superb album—certainly the best Lightfoot has ever put together….

The songs themselves are among his best—the title song is certainly the equal of Early Morning Rain …, Alberta Bound is a piece of superb Canadiana, and Christian Island is a hymn to a northern Ontario summer.

A magazine like this one is certainly no place to comment on the personal lives of composers—but it is hard to avoid doing so in the context of this particular album, because so many of the songs relate directly to Lightfoot's unhappy home life. Looking at the Rain, Ordinary Man and, particularly, Second Cup of Coffee, are all songs about lost love and loneliness—songs of pain, sung with feeling and with the warmth of past memories.

Lightfoot is, on the showing of this record, Canada's finest songwriter. And it seems a pity that so much personal turmoil has to be experienced to write such perfect songs.

A review of "Don Quixote," in The Canadian Composer, No. 70, May, 1972, p. 20.

Loraine Alterman

It seems so easy when Gordon Lightfoot does it—writes songs that just flow out in his warm, mellow tones. Yet, it's the rare talent who can approach Lightfoot's class and a rarer one who achieves the taste that marks every one of Lightfoot's recordings. You know that Lightfoot's effortless style comes from hard work: here is a mind that can sort out the feelings all of us share and convey them in music that is perfectly expressive of their meaning.

[On "Old Dan's Records"] Lightfoot isn't singing and writing about the loves of boys and girls but of men and women. "Can't Depend on Love" is the wry realization of an adult human being. "Farewell to Annabel" is about another love that didn't last, but again it's presented from a mature point of view, asking the former lover to remain friends.

Of course, Lightfoot isn't just a writer of love songs. The title tune is a rollicking ditty about how much fun it would be to dance to the old-time tunes. You can almost see people tapping their toes and swinging their partners. Lightfoot brings on a smile of recognition on "Easy Morning," a song which everyone who longs for Sundays will love. "Hi-Way Songs" is his own testament to the love-hate relationship performers have with being on tour….

Let's hope this Canadian singer never changes and continues to provide us with treasures like "Old Dan's Records."

Loraine Alterman, in her review of "Old Dan's Records," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1972, p. 38D.

Noel Coppage

["Old Dan's Records" is] rather a daring album, representing considerable growth, with no accompanying loss of taste or of any of Lightfoot's other virtues. True, one of the most satisfying cuts is It's Worth Believin', the kind of tightly paced ballad—in the tradition of Early Morning Rain and Second Cup of Coffee—that Lightfoot does better than anyone, but most of the rest of this album is not so easily hooked up with preconceptions about what Lightfoot's music is.

My Pony Won't Go is a near-blues thing, with lyrics that metaphorically broach a subject that I don't think pop music has tackled before (no, I won't spoil it for you). Lazy Mornin' has Lightfoot, in the manner of Randy Newman, assuming a viewpoint he does not agree with, that of a complacent suburbanite. That Same Old Obsession draws a subtle unstated parallel with an old hymn that also uses a garden allegorically, and it amounts to a melody that is mildly surprising for Lightfoot and a verse that probes the depths in two directions at once—I can see all sorts of political applications of it, for one thing. (pp. 94, 96)

The obvious clinker is the title song, and there are a few other indications that Lightfoot is feeling his way—but, cowabunga! is he advancing! It's all right to go on believing Lightfoot is the consummate troubadour—an informed, properly biased, sympathetic but moralizing and perceptive voice in a figure of earnestness and strength, with just a touch of swagger—it's all right, but don't let it lead you to underestimate his depth. (p. 96)

Noel Coppage, in his review of "Old Dan's Records," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1973 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 30, No. 3, March, 1973, pp. 94, 96.

Stephen Holden

Gordon Lightfoot's ninth album [Old Dan's Records] … is more and better of same: middle-of-the-road, homogenized folk rock that is sumptuously pleasant, but lacking the indelible stamp of emotional veracity that would make it irresistible. Lightfoot is certainly an important talent, whose prolific output of good songs is continuously impressive. Yet the overall impression he conveys is one of glibness….

Lightfoot clearly wants to be all things to all people—rustic folkie, cosmopolite, social commentator, and above all, the apostle of romantic love. Despite the remarkable facility and fine craftsmanship of his writing, these roles tend to overlap, resulting in work that too often is...

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Noel Coppage

Gordon Lightfoot is an absolute must for anyone who would learn about Canada by listening. His preoccupation with the images of summer is a Northern predilection. His songs such as Love and Maple Syrup and Redwood Hill are specifically concerned with both Northern and country folk hardware. Outdoor imagery … predominates in his lyrics, and his melodies are purified and refined country melodies. His perspective is reminiscent of that of rural people in the States twenty years ago—a bit defensively testy when any country-vs.-city comparisons come up, and always putting in a plug for the country when they don't…. (p. 74)

Noel Coppage, "I Hear Canada...

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Stephen Holden

Sundown is a fine album which weaves conventional folk and pop strands into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The polish of Lightfoot's singing has tended in the past to undermine the seriousness of his songs, inviting the listener to appreciate his records mainly as aural artifacts rather than explore their contents. But most of Sundown's 12 songs are so evocative that they prohibit such easy perusal….

Lightfoot's reflections are those of a mature man, capable of strong romantic and political emotions, tempered by a suave sexuality and an elegiac mysticism. "Somewhere U.S.A." is a lovely evocation of romantic complications experienced during the daze of travel. "High...

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Noel Coppage

In the old days of popular music, men were men and women were—it says in some of those recent analyses of old songs—abused. Now, though, David Bowie and other painted persons are happy to be asexual, bisexual, polysexual, pansexual, whatever works, and many of the pop stars who are still interested in music (you remember music) are phasing out the Me-Tarzan-You-Jane (or vice versa) slant in favor of a commitment more, ah, aware politically.

Against that background then, one is likely to notice all the more that two powerful new albums from America's best Canadian songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot, have the flavor of yesterday's heterosexuality about them, and seem, too,...

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Steve Lake

When it comes down to cracker-barrel philosophising, only Cat Stevens has Canada's Gordon Lightfoot beat. ["Cold on the Shoulder"] is the successor to the best-selling "Sundown" album, and contains roughly the same proportion of lovesick ballads and homespun sophistry…. The problem, basically speaking, is that Lightfoot doesn't know what he's talking about. Granted, when relating personal experience, Gordon writes a mean love song …, but as for metaphysics, well, John Donne he isn't. His imagery simply doesn't work for him. It's at its most laboured in "Rainbow Trout,"… forever trying to provide analogies between stock country singer/songwriter cliches and something deeper. It's a dangerous approach, and one...

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Noel Coppage

Few words of intriguing implication—words, say, sporting a positive and colorful mantle of romanticism—fit a performer better than troubadour fits Gordon Lightfoot. Time has shown him to be the troubadour of this modern bunch, and his new "Cold on the Shoulder" album …—in addition to adding evidence that quality will surface and be recognized—shows how gracefully the consummate troubadour goes about the business of traveling, writing, and singing songs.

It is a mellow album that rocks when the mood arrives, and some of it is just about timeless. It is also much more varied than it at first appears; Rainy Day People is one type of song, and an almost classically elegant...

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Bart Testa

It may be an anomaly that no one has become more cliched than the "singer-songwriter." With only him/herself to talk about, the singer-songwriter has either to transcend personal perspective or repeat him/herself to the point of dry exhaustion. Most singer-songwriters, protected by the screen of high income and cult worshippers, choose dry exhaustion. The exceptions—Elton John, Loudon Wainwright and, lately, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan—have returned to folkie/rock 'n roll eccentric topicality. This exceptional group came full circle, back to where the folkie thing left off (i.e., Bob Dylan rejoins Joan Baez), or back to rock 'n roll (Born To Run and "Philadelphia Freedom").

But...

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Colin Irwin

Not much to tell those familiar with Lightfoot's previous work—you can take it ["Summertime Dream"] is very much on par for the course. The guy's long established a formula of agreeable tunes and undemanding lyrics that's been amazingly successful for him, and he ain't gonna change it now, despite surely being second only to John Denver as the artist critics hate the most. Now and again he comes up with a particularly catchy song which grabs the imagination, or a lyric that delves beyond the usual commentary on personal relationships…. Not as strong as his best work, "Sit Down Young Stranger" (later re-titled "If You Could Read My Mind"), but far superior to the dull "Sundown."… Lightfoot has two explorations...

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Noel Coppage

There is a literati in popular music, a group of people with refined musical taste, education, and judgment, and my contention that Gordon Lightfoot is at the head of it just keeps getting more plausible with every record he makes. Lightfoot imposes increasingly tougher standards upon himself, and his albums consistently add poetry to the mostly commercial form in which he works. In short, he keeps adding songs to that precious five or so per cent of everything new that is worth keeping.

Technically, his work is excellent; he's every bit the craftsman the old boys were before rock-and-roll made amateurish writing and performing the most profitable kind. Yet he is a folk artist in the...

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Colin Irwin

[Though the songs on Lightfoot's "Endless Wire"] are firmly in the rather narrow poppy side of folk in which the man specialises, there is certainly more aggression and bite here than the man's ever displayed on record before….

By his standards, this is quite a bold album … but it still doesn't go far enough to be hailed a true breakthrough.

Tepid, instantly hummable songs of introspection like "Sometimes I Don't Mind" and "Dreamland," or the trivia of "Songs The Minstrel Sang" suggest Gordie's keeping his options open and attempting to maintain the affections of middle America's pseudo-trendies on the one hand while branching out more ambitiously on the other with tracks like...

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David Mix

Lightfoot's well-crafted songs match appealing, folkish melodies to simple, sometimes appallingly simple, lyrics. These he sings with such authority that every word takes on a certain dignity….

Slowly, however, the substance has been leaking out of his songs, to be replaced by puffery and posturing. On Endless Wire, few of the lyrics deserve the richly textured support provided by Lenny Waronker's production (in association with Lightfoot)….

Two songs seem to describe women, but abdicate that responsibility. "Daylight Katy" might as well be a cat, a lush backup makes it into likeable fluff. "Sweet Guinevere" tells a West Virginia miner's daughter … [not to go to coal...

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Noel Coppage

"Endless Wire" is a departure of sorts, but only to about the same degree that "Old Dan's Records" was in its time. The new one, quantitatively measured—by the amplification of instruments and the nature of such songs as I Don't Mind, If There's a Reason, and the verse (but not the chorus) of Endless Wire—is [Lightfoot's] rockingest album yet. But it is really no more Rock than his Nashville one, "Summer Side of Life," was Country.

Lightfoot's other abiding interests, including his feel for the working class and working-class settings, his fondness for narratives, and his preoccupation with the loved one who got away, are all in this one too. His songwriting is everywhere crafty and...

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Noel Coppage

Gordon Lightfoot takes a turn for the quiet in "Dream Street Rose," a subtle album that at first seems oddly impersonal coming from Lightfoot, a private man who, as private men sometimes do, tends to make his work intensely personal. And at first it seems regressive; the songs sound (superficially) like some he was writing ten years ago…. A casual first impression might be that it is some kind of retreat from the experimentation of ["Endless Wire"].

That impression would be wrong…. In fact, it represents a refinement of the lyrical aspect of his lyrics. The words of Sea of Tranquility, which at first seem so ignorably casual, gradually ingratiate themselves because they have an easy rhythm...

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Noel Coppage

Is Gordon Lightfoot the best songwriter of modern times? He has written and recorded upwards of one hundred and fifty songs, of which at least ninety are not only "keepers" but demonstrably superior, in one way or another, to most of their contemporaries. I know of no one else who has lately produced such quality in such quantity. He's at it again in his just-released "Shadows" with eleven new ones, and ten of them are beauties as engrossing as they are elegantly structured.

What makes Lightfoot great, I think, is his believability…. [He is one of the few pop stars] with such command of the English language that he can use word play as an end in itself. And so he writes with the folkie's sense of...

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