Gordon Lightfoot: A Tribute to His Incredible Life and Musical Legacy

Gordon Lightfoot

Portrait of Gordon Lightfoot, circa 1974 — the same year he released his classic tune "Sundown." Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

We thought we’d lost Gordon Lightfoot before.

There was the ruptured aortic artery in September 2002, just before a performance in his hometown of Orillia, which left the singer-songwriter in a coma for six weeks in a Hamilton hospital.

And there was the surreal hoax in 2010, when news of his death spread virally on social media, prompting Lightfoot to call in to a radio station to reassure listeners that he was, in fact, still alive and kicking.

Despite the waves of concern engendered by both events, though, it was almost impossible to think of Lightfoot dying. It was impossible to consider a country, a world, without him in it.

Sadly, Gordon Lightfoot passed away Monday night, May 1, 2023, in a hospital in Toronto. No hoax, this time. No hope for recovery. A statement from the family said he died of natural causes and that he’s survived by his wife Kim Hasse, six children and several grandchildren.

He was 84 years old.

Born in Orillia, Ont., Lightfoot was drawn to music from an early age, performing as a child and teenager, teaching himself guitar, piano and drums. He studied music at L.A.’s Westlake College of Music for two years, before returning to Canada in 1960, settling in Toronto where he largely lived for the rest of his life. He performed as a singer and dancer on CBC’s Country Hoedown before becoming a fixture in the Yorkville folk music scene. 

He first came to fame as a songwriter, with stars as disparate as Peter, Paul and Mary, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins and Richie Havens recording and performing his early songs. His debut album, Lightfoot!, was released in 1966, following appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. 

With his recording of “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” which was commissioned by the CBC to mark Canada’s centennial, and released on Jan. 1, 1967, Lightfoot was established as a Canadian icon. His 1971 recording of “If You Could Read My Mind” made him an international star, and the subject of appreciation (and envy) from other singer-songwriters. 

His catalogue from the late 1960s and early ’70s, between those two songs, is virtually unparalleled. Most songwriters would be thrilled to write a song as powerful as “Wherefore and Why” or “Black Day in July” or “Pussywillows, Cat-Tails” or “Did She Mention My Name” – Lightfoot wrote them all, and dozens more.

His move to Warner Bros./Reprise in 1970 maintained that flow, with songs like “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Don Quixote,” “Old Dan’s Records,” and so many more. It’s almost ridiculous to list Lightfoot’s great songs — they’re carved into our souls in ways we don’t really understand. 

Despite struggling with Bell’s palsy and alcoholism, Lightfoot continued to write and tour. His regular concerts at Toronto’s Massey Hall were more than shows: they were cultural touchstones. And while he slowed down as he aged, and as health issues plagued him, Lightfoot never stopped. A 2019 documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind served as an introduction to his life and work for a younger generation and saw the generation of songwriters who followed him, including Rush’s Geddy Lee and Tom Cochrane, weighing in on his influence.

Lightfoot has loomed so large in Canadian music and culture that one finds it difficult to define exactly why. Lightfoot’s greatness is a given, but what is it that made him so great?

We could talk about his voice, the caramel baritone that characterized much of his work. We could talk about the force and grace of his guitar-playing.

It all comes back, though, to the songs. 

Pieces like “If You Could Read My Mind,” written about his divorce, and “Sundown,” written during his fractious relationship with late Canadian singer Cathy Smith — who was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the drug-related death of comedian John Belushi — are plain-spoken and emotionally immediate, to vastly different effect, the plaintive quality of the first juxtaposed against the simmering, slow churning of the second. His use of images is powerful, from pussywillows and cattails to a collection of old records.

And then there’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which Lightfoot released in 1976. Based on a Newsweek article, the song chronicled the sinking of the eponymous ship on Lake Superior in November 1975.

It’s a remarkable song, which balances immediacy and contemporary content (the song was released months after the sinking) against a timeless, legendary quality, in much the same manner that “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” makes the history of the trans-Canada railway feel vibrant and alive.