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.
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.”