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Remembering Canadian Folk Legend Gordon Lightfoot: An Understanding Friend in the Dark

Hits like ‘Sundown’ and ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ helped define ’70s music

spinner image Gordon Lightfoot performing with his acoustic guitar during the CFL's 100th Grey Cup Championship Halftime Show at the Rogers Centre in Toronto
Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

Though Gordon Lightfoot refused to put a label on his music, he helped define the ’60s folk era — joining such influences as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton — before expanding into a slightly more pop milieu in the ’70s.

The Canadian folk singer whose mournful baritone and poetic, mellow songwriting made him one of the most revered performers and recording artists of the 1970s, died Monday in Toronto at 84 of unspecified causes.

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He suffered a stroke in 2006 but toured and recorded nearly until the end. “I want to work,” he told AARP in 2020. “And why not? I feel pretty good, actually. Work keeps me going. When I do my show, I give it everything I’ve got.”

Lightfoot leaves behind a rich legacy — five Grammy nominations, three platinum records and nine gold — for such songs as “Sundown” (his only number 1 hit), “Early Morning Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Carefree Highway” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an almost documentary account of the 1975 sinking of the ship that killed 29 crew members. Given its subject matter and length — six minutes — the ballad seemed an unlikely radio hit, but lodged at number 2 on the charts and struck an emotional chord that propelled the tragedy into legend.

His biographer, Nicholas Jennings, noted that the storyteller’s name “is synonymous with timeless songs about trains and shipwrecks, rivers and highways, lovers and loneliness.”

It was perhaps the loneliness and romantic disappointment that endeared him to so many; his songs, pouring out of late-night radio, seeming like an understanding friend in the dark. Fans recalled on Facebook today that his music was part of their formative years, one writing, “I’m so sad about Gordon. Just played ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’ and had myself a little cry.” Yet another wrote that his calming music was “a grounding element for me through the years when so much of popular music was loud and unsettling.”

Born November 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ontario, Lightfoot sang in a church choir as a child, and performed locally on the radio shows. He played a variety of instruments in high school and wrote his first song, about the hula hoop fad, during those years, going on to study at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles. He found his niche when he returned to Canada in the ’60s and played the same folk club and coffee-house circuit as his fellow rising Canadians, Ian and Sylvia, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

His breakthrough came when Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” which perfectly captured the melodic, confessional style and self-involved emotion of neo-folk. Peter, Paul and Mary subsequently took those songs to a larger audience and established him as an important writer.

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Lightfoot’s songs came to be recorded by dozens of artists including such disparate voices as Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, the Grateful Dead and Olivia Newton-John.

The performer was an exercise enthusiast who believed it saved his life after a 2002 abdominal aortic aneurysm, which put him in a six-week coma. “I exercise right up until the last minute,” he told AARP of his pre-concert regimen. “I know it’s helping my singing. And it’s keeping me strong.”

His third wife, Kim Hasse, survives him, along with six children, multiple grandchildren and a great-grandson. His youngest daughter followed into the music business, recording under the name Meredith Moon.

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