By Ross Altman

Gordon Lightfoot - Nick Tedesco
Photo by Nick Tedesco.

Gordon Lightfoot almost lost his life in 2002 when his abdominal artery burst and he was in a coma for six weeks following the surgery that saved his life. When he finally and almost miraculously woke up he could barely play the guitar and his vocal chords were so constricted his golden voice was no more. That’s when a lifetime work ethic kicked in and literally pulled him back from the dead. Talk about a ribbon of darkness over me—this was the true crossroads and test of artistic character that he passed with flying colors.

Lightfoot started to practice guitar again like there was no tomorrow—which there almost was not—until he even surpassed his previous skill-level on the instrument that defined his sound from the early 1960s on—when he helped to create the folk revival on the entire North American continent—both his native Canada and his adopted homeland America. When others who cherished his work and recorded his imperishable songs—including Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins and fellow Canadian Neil Young—drifted into folk rock or country rock, Gordon Lightfoot stayed true to his folk roots and never put his finger into the wind to find out what the marketplace wanted to hear. That personal certitude of an inner vision and voice is what has endeared him to fans around the world for more than fifty years. It is what has kept his music timeless as the ancient ballads and current as today’s newspaper.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975 could have happened anywhere in the world at any time—because of Lightfoot’s classic song it has never been forgotten—and his personal integrity keeps him in touch with the 29 victim’s families as if he was the captain of the ship—their own memories endure because of the power of his song. Canadian Railroad Trilogy’s epic tale made our neighbor to the north every bit as much a part of railroad folklore as our John Henry, Casey Jones, Wreck of the Old 97 or I’ve Been Working On the Railroad. Indeed, Lightfoot’s three-part novel-in-song is the average American’s introduction to Canadian history.

That remains the time-honored role of the folk singer—to tell not just his own personal story but the collective stories of his people and in that sense Gordon Lightfoot is Canada’s greatest folk singer. He blazed the trail that Stan Rogers so brilliantly followed.

But Gordon Lightfoot has told his own personal stories as well—in classic love songs like If You Could Read My Mind, Did She Mention My Name and the aforementioned Ribbon of Darkness, which Marty Robbins recorded in 1965 and made into a Number 1 Country Hit. That’s a reliable measure of how central this Canadian’s songs became to American folk and country music. As far from Nashville as one could be without sailing off into the Northwest Passage, and yet Lightfoot spoke to ordinary working class Americans as surely as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Gordon Lightfoot -youngerAnd in one song Lightfoot reached far beyond these country super stars’ fan base to enter the African-American civil rights revolution of the 1960s as well. That song was Black Day in July, his gripping account of the Detroit riot of 1967 which was banned on mainstream American radio and put Gordon Lightfoot in the company of such protest rebel folk singers as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. For a full account of this urban outlaw masterpiece see my 2012 feature Gordon Lightfoot—Banned in the USA?

That is an astonishing range of artistic vision—from middle-of-the-road mainstream acceptance to the voice of the disenfranchised and disinherited, but Gordon Lightfoot has walked that walk since first breaking into the ranks of modern folk singer-songwriters in 1962. Indeed, it is not easy to think of another artist of his stature who has successfully spanned that cultural divide.

If there is any modern folk singer who has marched to the beat of his own drum so consistently and for so long I can’t think whom they might be. Jean Redpath—who I justly celebrated as Scotland’s greatest folk singer in these pages—disavowed the term “folk singer,” insisting that she just regarded herself as a “singer.” Even Pete Seeger—the last person in the world you would imagine being uncomfortable with that label—refused to accept it. He preferred to think of himself as a “river singer,” since he wrote and sailed on behalf of the Hudson River. Now performers use the term “Americana” to describe themselves, or “Acoustic,” almost anything to avoid the dreaded market-share killing “F” word—Folk.

Not Gordon Lightfoot: he embraces it: “We play all acoustic music in the folk style of the early 60s” he proudly explained in a recent interview (source: Huffington Post). His personal songs like Early Morning Rain have endured because they are anchored in both the natural world and folk mythology—“You can’t ride a jet plane like you can a freight train”—and the currency of modern life “with a dollar in my hands.”

Now that he is 75 years old and celebrating fifty years on his own Carefree Highway his worldwide audience can look forward to live shows that he plans as carefully (in Burl Ives wonderful phrase) as a bank robbery. They are jam-packed with forty songs that span his entire career and are ungrudgingly three hours long. This from a performer who came back from the brink of death and now treasures every living day.

On concert days he is known to prepare for three hours just tuning his four guitars—both six and twelve-string—in the show. Their intonation has to be perfect, as well as that of his band— bassist Rick Haynes, drummer Barry Keane, keyboardist Mike Heffernan and lead guitarist Carter Lancaster. His musical standards are exacting and precise, another hallmark of his businesslike work ethic to which he attributes his longevity as a performer. Like an unceremonious worker among workers when he is not on the road but back home in Canada (where he once again lives) he goes into the office every day to take care of his music business. (Source: Huffinton Post)

When he is not on the road he also works out in the gym to stay in shape—roughly 200 days a year, a fitness regimen that goes back to 1980 and to which he also credits his durability as a live performer. When I saw him for the first time three years ago at UCLA he was rail thin—which I took to be an early warning sign of his fragile health. On the contrary—it was a testament to his will power and workout regime. He trains for concerts the way Sugar Ray Robinson would train for a fight and that is why he is still giving his audiences a joyful experience when they go to see him perform. At 25 you can thank your genes and lucky stars for your good looks and trim physique.

But at 75 it’s a testament to character not luck. The fact that Gordon Lightfoot is still able to live the life of the troubadour means he did it the old-fashioned way. Like another of his most memorable songs, he is still Don Quixote—the medieval knight who may have tilted at windmills, but who defined the role of the great romantic once and for all. Don Quixote inspired readers of his own time but also inspired the 20th Century’s Picasso to paint his image, and modern Broadway in The Man of La Mancha to sing his songs.

Miguel de Cervantes loose and baggy Spanish novel also inspired one Canadian folk singer, Gordon Lightfoot—with a distinctive maroon waist coat and well-tempered guitar—who nonetheless put a very different spin on this ancient tale.

For as he looks out on the characters of his own time in need of a hero to save them he sees “the children of the earth/Who wake to find the table bare;” he sees “the jailer with his key/Who locks away all trace of sin;” he sees “the soldier with his gun/Who must be dead to be admired;” and most notably he sees “the youth in ghetto black/Condemned to life upon the street;” in short he sees the whole tableau of America in the 1960s—and in Ferguson, Missouri today —not the America of presidents, CEOs and the Chamber of Commerce—but Michael Harrington's other America of the oppressed and dispossessed, and above all the hungry idealists who tried and are still trying to change it. For them it’s no impossible dream; it’s their daily challenge.

That is Gordon Lightfoot’s Don Quixote, and that is why he remains my hero to this day. His “rusty sword” and “tarnished cross” are still the weapons of song that define what a great folk singer can be—a voice for the voiceless, for black and white, young and old, veterans for peace and justice—and that is why his songs still matter. Fifty years and counting, he and they continue to fight the good fight.

On Saturday evening, September 27 at 8:00pm Gordon Lightfoot brings his 50 Years On the Carefree Highway Tour to the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211; 888-645-5006 ; Don’t you dare miss it!

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.