Written by a Canadian, he said. Gordon Lightfoot. He took out the class record player (Remember those?) And he played it for us.
It was like a revelation for me – that voice, that melody, and most of all, the poignancy of the storyline of a homeless man who eventually dies. Told in a simple, sympathetic, poetic way
I learned the paradox of beauty that can be horrible and heart-wrenching. The question toward the end of the lesson was, “What does Lightfoot mean when he says at the end of the song that ‘The old man has come home from the forest.’”?
I think we were all almost afraid to say it, “He died.” Fate, dreams, and mortality.
Those were big feelings for a twelve-year-old. And Mr. Lightfoot did that.
Even more, I wanted to learn that song. And more songs by him.
You have to keep in mind that this was way before the age of cell-phones, MTV, and computer search engines. My only access to music at the time was to become a denizen of music stores. Almost every chance I would get to be downtown I’d find myself in one of the two music stores there.
My father still had an old guitar he occasionally played. I bought a book on guitar chords. The problem was manifold: the height of the strings over the fretboard was measured in sixteenths of an inch. It was a big, awkward thing with a huge neck. Tuning it was well-nigh impossible. Translated, it meant that the thing was a bugger to play, and my pre-teen fingers were never going to be strong enough to push the old and rusted strings down behind the frets.
But I wanted to learn how to play guitar in order to play Gordon Lightfoot songs.
I babysat. A year or two later, I washed dishes for my father’s kitchen. The music store in downtown London had a Yamaha steel six-string acoustic for just over a hundred bucks. And I saved enough to buy it, the first of many Gord’s songbooks that would litter my bedroom floor.
I can credit Gord (and his publishers) for my introduction to Travis picking and dropped ‘D’ tuning.
When I see titles of his songs, about 90% of the time the tune and lyrics of at least the first verse and melody will spring to mind. That yodel of “Steel Rail Blues” still rings in my head even as I write this. For opening the doors to other artists and singers: Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Bob Dylan, Murray McLaughlin, Valdy, Bruce Cockburn, the McGarrigle Sisters, and of course the multitude of wonders of the Mariposa Folk Festival.
Indeed, when I look back, Gord was the catalyst, bringing together a host of disparate influences and curiosities in my young life: choirs, high school band music, my father’s classical repertoire, my mother’s attraction to musicals and C&W, dysfunctional family, and teenage angst. I think the climax of all of that was a performance I gave of the Canadian Railroad Trilogy for a high school lunch concert. Even if I have problems with the real history of the Trans Canada Railroad, playing Gord’s interpretation of that historical song in its entirety at the time was a coup for me and well-received by my peers. If ever I wanted to feel even close to being “Canadian” Gordon Lightfoot was the ticket.
His songwriting is poetic, down-to-earth, full of the empathetic storytelling skill that held and still holds me. Whether it was a trip to a hometown friend wondering about an old flame, riots in Motor City, or a shipwreck, philosophical musings of the wherefore and the why, or, one of my personal favourites, a road trip to the mountains to greet Marianne, Gord had the knack of bringing the story home to me.
And when I began to write songs, he was the springboard. I am eternally grateful for his life and legacy.
Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow. Safe havens, Gord. You’re home from the forest.