The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead / my glass is almost empty*
*from "Song for a Winter's Night" by Gordon Lightfoot.
In the nation to our north—the one that has given us Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and countless other inestimably great singer/songwriters, Gordon Lightfoot was popularly considered the greatest. It's said that Mr. Young, for one, agrees.
Gordon Lightfoot died Monday at the age of 84 in Toronto, Canada—the country of his birth.
His career spanned more than sixty years, but for most American listeners, it was "If You Could Read My Mind" that thrust him into the popular music spotlight. Although he was more folk than rock, his poetry helped him escape any pigeonholing, and his oeuvre spanned many generations and musical tastes.
When he began his career in the 1960's, critics praised his lyrics and voice and found his guitar playing intricate and polished, but they felt he needed more stage presence to be truly popular. He didn't. He simply needed to sing his songs.
He was quiet and self-effacing, though, like many performers, there were also some dark moments in his life to wit, a volatile and sometimes violent relationship with a Canadian groupie named Cathy Smith who was, more than likely, the subject of "Sundown." Yet that gritty and ominous tune came from the same creative pen as did "Summertime Dream" and "Carefree Highway."
Gordon Lightfoot told stories of heartbreak, childhood joys, marriages gone awry, and love reclaimed. He also was a national hero by virtue of pieces like the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," and the historian who told the true story of the disastrous sinking of the mammoth Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald that went down in a November gale in 1975. Family members of that lost crew still revere Lightfoot for honoring the men lost on that day.
He told stories, yes, but more than that, he captured moods and let them play out in our minds. No one can listen to "Song for a Winter's Night" and not feel the loneliness and longing or envision the room as the slowly diminishing candles burn low, the snow swirls outside, and the narrator's "glass is almost empty." So simple. So amazing. (I've lost count of how many times I listened to it while writing this.)
Storytelling is an art. Gordon Lightfoot did it well. He leaves behind a superb catalog of incredible music, but I am sad to realize there will be no additions to it.