Gordon Lightfoot: Sailor, Voyager, Legendary Songwriter

Gordon Lightfoot: Sailor, Voyager, Legendary Songwriter

The audience packing the Grand Theatre in Wausau, Wisconsin, rose to its feet June 15, 2022, when Gordon Lightfoot took the stage at age 83.

The loud, sustained ovation seemed only natural, even though such honors usually occur at a concert’s end, not its start. Then again, this was an older crowd, and it probably wasn’t their first Lightfoot show. But maybe they sensed it was their last Lightfoot show, and they wanted to show the legendary singer/songwriter their ovation wasn’t routine. He had long ago earned their lifetime achievement award.

Their foreboding proved true when Lightfoot died May 1 at 84, still working hard, with several never-to-be-played concerts scheduled for summer. You had to admire that lifelong work ethic, and respect that he cared enough about his craft early in life to hone it through college at the Westlake School of Modern Music in Hollywood in the late 1950s.

Lightfoot didn’t wing it on stage, either. He was a stickler who insisted on “playing in tune on time.” Still, he must have been a good boss and solid companion, given that most of his band members grew old with him.

Whether he sang of joys or tragedies, children or old men, or true love or infidelity, his music was catchy, well-crafted, and consistently played. My generation first heard hits like “If You Could Read My Mind” on our parents’ HiFi stereo radio/record players in the early 1970s. If we paid attention in the 1960s, we also heard Elvis Presley and artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary make hits from “Early Morning Rain” and several other Lightfoot songs.

Plus, his lyrics made you think. Fans still discuss who inspired his No. 1 hit “Sundown” from 1974, and appreciate how his melancholy voice sang of heartaches without being maudlin. He admitted his regrets, too, like writing the hit “For Loving Me.” He said he came to hate that “f-ing song,” and couldn’t believe the pain he caused his first wife by writing it while married.

Many Lightfoot fans, however, didn’t know he was a skilled sailor, competent angler, and intrepid canoeist. He knew firsthand how big water, deadly currents, and towering waves trigger mortal doubts of returning to shore. “Does anyone know where the love of God goes, When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

A little-known Lightfoot song, “Canary Yellow Canoe” shared his love for running wilderness Canadian rivers like the Ross, Back, George, Rupert, Peace, Churchill, Eastmain, Coppermine, and Chibougamau. In 1980 his canoe smashed onto the rocks of the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, stranding his group for hours. Another party eventually came downriver and helped free Lightfoot’s pinned and folded canoe. It snapped back to its original form, but its cargo had flushed downstream.

Lightfoot Gordon Lightfoot, second from left, survived a dunking and temporary stranding when his canoe slammed into rocks while shooting a rapids on the South Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1980.

He also sailed the Great Lakes for years, first in his 39-foot fiberglass boat he named Sundown. Next, he hired a shipwright to build a 45-foot mahogany sailboat, which he named the Golden Goose, reasoning that, much like fine guitars, sailboats should be made from wood.

Lightfoot released his most famous song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” in June 1976, only seven months after the 729-foot ore boat sank Nov 10, 1975, in eastern Lake Superior. Few today would know of that tragedy, which killed the entire 29-man crew, if not for Lightfoot’s haunting lyrics and the tune he crafted from an Irish sea shanty.

But not just any song immortalizes a shipwreck, even one involving the biggest ship ever lost on the Great Lakes. That feat requires a masterpiece.

Lightfoot knew that, too, because this wasn’t his first shipwreck song. He wrote and recorded the “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle” in 1969, recounting how the SS Yarmouth Castle, a cruise ship, caught fire and sank off Florida in 1965, killing 90 of its 552 passengers and crew, three times more than were lost on the Big Fitz. “Like a toy ship on a millpond, She burned all through the night, Then slipped ’neath the waves, In the mornin’.

The Fitzgerald’s sinking wasn’t unprecedented, either. Mark Thompson—a Great Lakes mariner, historian, and author—estimates those inland seas have claimed 25,000 shipwrecks since 1679, with at least a third sinking in November. The Fitzgerald, in fact, was the third big Great Lakes freighter in two decades to break up and sink in a November storm. The SS Carl D. Bradley sank in northern Lake Michigan in 1958, killing 33 of its 35-man crew; and the SS Daniel J. Morrell sank in Lake Huron in 1966, killing 28 of its 29 men.

But songs about the Bradley and Morrell tragedies didn’t trigger enduring worldwide reverence. Lee Murdock wrote and recorded the “Wreck of the Carl D. Bradley” in 1991, and Carl Behrend wrote and recorded “Wreck of the Daniel J. Morrell” in 2016.

Maritime disasters, in fact, often inspire folk music. As Michigan researchers Misty Jackson and Kenneth Vrana share in their 2020 paper, “Sad and Dismal is the Story: Memory, Preservation, and the Folk Music Tradition of Great Lakes Shipwrecks,” those waters spawn sunken-ship songs.

In fact, Murdock said taverns along the Great Lakes helped drive songwriting in the 1800s by serving free drinks to patrons who could sing. Some of those tunes survive, at least on paper. The Smithsonian’s “Songs of the Great Lakes” recorded 13 such songs in 1964, not all of which concerned shipwrecks. A University of Michigan collection from 1932 to 1938 includes at least 30 songs from the era of sailing ships. There’d be more, but Captain James McCannell lost his book of Great Lakes songs when the ship Our Son sank on Lake Michigan in 1930.

Lightfoot’s fascination with ships, lost sailors, and the inevitability of maritime disasters also inspired his songs “Triangle,” “Bitter Green,” “Christian Island,” “Marie Christine,” “The Ghosts of Cape Horn,” and others. As he wrote in “Triangle”: “When she took her last tumble, The sea bottom rumbled, There was no confusion or blame. The captain said, “Men we must answer again to the sea, so ye may not complain.”

Lightfoot also accepted that we’ll never know the cause of many shipwrecks. As he explained in his Fitzgerald sea shanty: “She might have split up or she might have capsized, They may have broke deep and took water, And all that remains is the faces and the names, Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”

And now Lightfoot has also crossed the bar, but his 200-plus recordings remain. As the novelist James Clavell wrote in “Shogun,” “The pen is a long arm from the grave.”

Lightfoot’s songwriting arm will prove far longer than most.

Feature art via Dave Burgess.

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