It would only take a small penthouse to accommodate the amount of music artists who if you disappeared their legacies in their entirety, it would irreparable and forever change the very fabric of music as we know it today. In a world teeming with interpreters, reenactors, imitators, and outright frauds, only a few select songsmiths truly touched music in foundational manners integral to audio expression, and irrespective of genre. Start and end that list with whomever you wish. But damn well make sure you include Gordon Lightfoot within that small and exclusive company.
Gordon Lightfoot was a Canadian, not a Statesman. He was only country in spurts, or by accident. But even the shit kickers and the honky-tonkers out there will conclude that Gordon Lightfoot was undeniably essential, at least the ones who know their stuff, are worth their salt, and honest. And the others? Well screw them. It’s their loss if they don’t know the gold they’re missing in a catalog rendered timeless and awesome through tales of the land and the people upon it, and how those people love, and live, and eventually, and tragically, die.
No matter who you were, or where you were from, Gordon Lightfoot told your story. And he did it in a way that pulsated with the magic and mystery in life that only life itself could match in emotion, memory, and ferocity. Folk traditions were the underlying foundation that Gordon Lightfoot utilized to express his inspirations, always putting the words before the music, and the message ahead of the melody. But if electric or eclectic instruments expressed the sentiment more accurately, Lightfoot accommodated. The muse was always in charge. Lightfoot was only the vessel.
So much of music colors our lives, works like timelines in our relationships and life’s other landmarks. But Gordon Lightfoot’s music went so much deeper. It wasn’t ephemeral. It was monumental. We made life-altering decisions based on the wisdom we once gleaned from a Lightfoot lyric. We remember a place, or a moment in history and tie it to a Lightfoot song not just in the way it serenaded us in the moment, but in the way it influenced its outcome.
Yes, Gordon Lightfoot left behind ample songs you can conclusively label as “country.” There’s his early song “Cotton Jenny.” There’s the entirely of his 1974 masterpiece Sundown that’s more important than entire eras of other artists in the strokes of influential mastery it captured. But let’s not diminish Lightfoot’s legacy in conversations of genre. Not in this moment. His work stands irrespective of any limitation. It was epic in its ability to stoke the imagination. We all lived heroically and died tragically on the Edmund Fitzgerald, and we have Gordon Lightfoot to thank for it.
May Day is what they call it in many parts of the world—a day when we commemorate the laborers who built our modern society and the infrastructure we all enjoy, including many who died in that service, just like the 29 men who perished in the icy waters of Lake Superior, yet still live in the minds of all of us to this day due to Lightfoot. They died, but he allowed them to live again. And now Gordon Lightfoot is dead, but he’s still very much alive in our hearts, and minds, and souls. Because his music outlives him, and will outlive us all.