Today’s History Lesson leaves the tropics of Guadalcanal behind and heads for the cold of Canada…specifically Orillia, Ontario. Located 80 miles north of Toronto, the city boasts a population of about 30,000 people and is the birthplace of one of Canada’s most famous singers.
Gordon Lightfoot was born on November 17, 1938. Gordy’s singing and song-writing potential were well-known in local circles when he was quite young, and he had become something of a Canadian star in the early 60’s. But Lightfoot was still largely unknown outside the borders of his country.
That changed when he began releasing material for United Artists in mid 60’s. His prowess as both a song-writer and a self-taught guitar player with a listenable, honest voice started getting him noticed. Still, it wasn’t until If You Could Read My Mind was released in 1970 that Lightfoot hit the big-time. For the next 10 years, Lightfoot would land a string of great songs on the charts. Though he achieved a much greater success in his home country, many of most popular songs are ones that U.S.-bound listeners could all sing.
Carefree Highway and Sundown would be two of them, but I think it was The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, released in 1976, that really made him a household name. Its haunting melody and moving bass line combined with the “legend of Gitche Gumee” and the reality of Lake Superior’s greatest maritime disaster have become the anthem of Gordon Lightfoot’s career. In fact, I’m bold enough to claim that The Wreck has moved from just another “story song” to a place where in some sense, it has eclipsed the event it describes. No one can mention the iron boat’s name without hearing the strains of Lightfoot’s voice in the background or humming the opening measures of the song.
I suppose that, in a sense, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald so characterizes Gordon Lightfoot that much of his other work, terrific as it is, is lost in the boat’s shadow. And that’s sad, because he has a terrific collection. Some of my other favorites include The Pony Man, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and Alberta Bound. But happily, the Orillia native, though 70 years of age today, is still singing and performing. I was fortunate enough to see Lightfoot in concert at the Paramount Theater in Cedar Rapids, IA, in 1993. It was 2 hours of pure musical entertainment…one of the best live concerts I’ve ever attended. No light displays, no bungee jumping, no spinning drums, and no stupid antics on stage.
It was Gordy, his guitar, his oh-so-familiar voice, and a really tight band. Just as it should be.
Happy Birthday, Gordon Lightfoot!!