Gordon Lightfoot, the legendary Canadian folk singer-songwriter whose hits including “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” told a story of Canadian identity that was exported worldwide, died Monday. He was 84.
Rep. Victoria Lord said the musician died at a Toronto hospital. His cause of death was not immediately available.
Considered one of the most famous voices to emerge from Toronto’s Yorkville Folk Club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot recorded 20 studio albums and hundreds of songs, including “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown.”
Once called a “rare talent” by Bob Dylan, dozens of artists have covered his work, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Ann Murray, Jane’s Addiction and Sarah McLachlan.
Most of his songs are deeply autobiographical with lyrics that openly explore his own experiences and explore issues surrounding Canadian national identity.
His 1975 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” chronicled the death of a Great Lakes ore freighter, and the 1966 “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” depicted railway construction.
“I just write songs about where I am and where I’m from,” he once said. “I take situations and write poems about them.”
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Often described as a poetic storyteller, Lightfoot was keenly aware of his cultural influence. It was a role he took very seriously.
“I want to be there and be part of the totem pole and look after the responsibilities that I’ve acquired over the years,” he said in a 2001 interview.
Although Lightfoot’s parents recognized his musical talent early on, he did not set out to become a famous balladeer.
He began singing in his church choir and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. At age 13, the soprano won a talent competition at the Kiwanis Music Festival held at Massey Hall in Toronto.
“I remember the thrill of being in front of a crowd,” Lightfoot said in a 2018 interview. “It was a stepping stone for me…”
That early appeal stuck and in high school, his barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, won a CBC talent contest. He played his first guitar in 1956 and began writing songs in the months that followed. Perhaps distracted by his taste for music, he flunked algebra for the first time. After taking classes again, he graduated in 1957.
By that time, Lightfoot had already written his first serious composition – “The Hula Hoop Song”, inspired by the popular children’s toy that shook the culture. Attempts to sell the song went nowhere so at age 18, he moved to the United States to study music for a year. The trip was financed by money saved from his job delivering linen to resorts around his hometown.
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Life in Hollywood, however, was not ideal and it was not long before Lightfoot returned to Canada. Taking any job available, including a position at a bank, she vowed to move to Toronto to pursue her musical ambitions before landing a gig as a square dancer on CBC’s “Country Hoedown.”
His first gig was at France Restaurant, a downtown family-owned diner that warmed to his folk sensibilities. It was there that he met fellow musician Ronnie Hawkins.
The singer was living with a few friends in a condemned building in Yorkville, then a bohemian area where future stars including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would learn their trade in smoke-filled clubs.
Lightfoot made his popular radio debut in 1962 with the single “(Remember Me) I’m the One”, which led to a number of hit songs and partnerships with other local musicians. When he began playing the Mariposa Folk Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario that same year, Lightfoot developed a relationship that made him one of the festival’s most trusted returning performers.
By 1964, he had gathered positive word of mouth around town and audiences began to gather in increasing numbers. By the following year, Lightfoot’s song “I’m Not That” was a hit in Canada, helping to spread his name in the United States.
A couple of covers by other artists didn’t hurt either. Marty Robbins’ 1965 recording of “Ribbon of Darkness” reached No. 1 on the US country chart, while Peter, Paul and Mary Lightfoot’s “For Lovin’ Me” reached the US Top 30. The song, which Dylan once said he wished he had recorded, has since been covered by hundreds of other musicians.
That summer, Lightfoot performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the same year Dylan wowed the audience when he showcased his folksy persona on electric guitar.
As the folk music boom ended in the late 1960s, Lightfoot was already making his transition into pop music with ease.
In 1971, he debuted on the Billboard charts with “If You Could Read My Mind”. It reached number 5 and has since made many covers.
Lightfoot’s popularity peaked in the mid-1970s when his single and album “Sundown” topped the Billboard charts, his first and only time.
During his career, Lightfoot collected 12 Juno Awards, including one in 1970 when it was called the Gold Leaf.
In 1986, he was inducted into the Canadian Recording Industry Hall of Fame, now the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He received the Governor General’s Award in 1997 and was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.