When I was growing up, Gordon Lightfoot songs played on the living room stereo, on the radio in the kitchen and in the family car and on my dad’s guitar so continuously that it felt like the Canadian singer-songwriter, who died in a Toronto hospital on Monday at 84, lived with us.
[Read: Gordon Lightfoot, Hitmaking Singer-Songwriter, Is Dead at 84]
I talked this week with my mom and dad, who are 82, about the musician who made the soundtrack to our lives. My father recalled the first time they saw Lightfoot, who had been making a name for himself in 1965 on the folk music scene in Toronto. He is near certain it was in a union hall in nearby Hamilton, a few years before I was born. Lightfoot was a part of my family before I was.
In the early days his 1966 debut record — “Lightfoot!” — lived on the turntable of our mahogany console stereo that took up nearly as much space as the couch, but was the far more essential piece of furniture.
As his popularity grew through the 1960s and ’70s, Lightfoot was prolific, releasing an album each year, and they stacked up at our place, leaning against the stereo and within easy reach. All the covers featured Lightfoot, sensitive and brooding. His good looks of the 1970s were lost on younger me. But Lightfoot was the one artist that my parents could always agree on playing any time at any volume. Saturday nights. Sunday mornings. Home alone. With a house full of company. It was always Lightfoot.
My dad learned to play his whole catalog by ear on an acoustic six-string.
Nature and the wilderness were central themes for Lightfoot, as they were for my mom and dad and for me and my younger brother. His sense of place made me curious about Canada beyond my backyard. His few political songs — particularly “Black Day in July,” about the Detroit race riots of 1967 — sparked a fascination with the United States.
“Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” a panoramic suite that tells the story of Canada’s founding in 1867, was a history class set to music. Lightfoot wrote perfect three-minute ballads and sweeping seven-minute narratives, what the American musician Steve Earle, in the excellent 2019 documentary “If You Could Read My Mind” called “story songs.”
[Read: Gordon Lightfoot’s 10 Essential Songs]
A Gordon Lightfoot album was packed with intrigue: songs about trains, shipwrecks, forests, lakes and rivers, with a throughline of melancholy that was mysterious and irresistible to an introverted kid who spent most of her time reading and writing.
I loved his melodic guitar and supple baritone. But his simple, succinct songs were a master class in narrative storytelling and wordcraft. Lightfoot’s songs, precise and profound, read like poems and unfolded like three-act plays.
Everyone rightfully treasures “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” but as a kid I loved “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” which told the story of a steamship that caught fire and sank off Nassau, the Bahamas, in 1965. On the 1969 live album “Sunday Concert,” the moody, haunting song captivated and frightened me, and still does.
Plain-spoken imagery mingled with understated emotion, Lightfoot’s introspection fueled my own.
Canada lost something of itself this week. I read the nearly 1,400 comments (at the time of this writing) left by readers on the Times obituary, and related in some way to all of them.
“It is so emotional, so deeply rooted in my young, searching being,” Tim Snapp of Chico, Calif., wrote about Lightfoot’s music.
“For all my life, Gordon Lightfoot’s songs have been a steady anchor for my inner sadnesses,” wrote Rick Vitale, a retired mathematician from Wallingford, Conn. “Thanks, Bro … Hope to see you on the other side.”
My dad is eternally analog, but for Christmas in 2005, I gave him and my mom iPod Minis, loaded with hundreds of their favorite songs and artists, and songs I thought they would like. The lineup on each iPod was quite different, except for Lightfoot’s complete discography, which was on both.
My mom has moved on to streaming and satellite radio. My dad still listens to his old iPod at night when he’s falling asleep. The battery hasn’t held a charge in years. It stays plugged into a wall outlet.
On Tuesday, my dad said he would play some Lightfoot songs that evening on his guitar, a vintage El Degas red sunburst model that he’s strumming these days.
Play one for me, I said.
Lightfoot’s hits — celebrated on playlists published this week — are unspeakably good and timeless, but his deeper cuts are where I go more often. Here are 26 songs that I’ve been appreciating this week.
This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a reporter-researcher in Toronto.
Often called “the Godfather of A.I.,” Geoffrey Hinton, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, said he quit his job at Google to join a growing chorus of critics who are warning about the technology’s dangers. (Use this gift link to read the article without a subscription.)
The Times will have live coverage of Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III in London. The king is Canada’s head of state, but as with some other British Commonwealth nations, support for the crown is diminishing in the country.
A union representing federal public service workers reached a deal on Thursday to fully end its strike.
Sophie Nélisse, the Canadian actress who plays the teenage version of Shauna in “Yellowjackets,” spoke to The Times about her challenging performance. Warning: The article contains spoilers.
Chasers of northern lights sightings could be busier than usual over the next two years.
“Queens of the Qing Dynasty,” a new film by Ashley McKenzie, a director from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is an NYT Critic’s Pick.
Bruce McCall, a satirical artist born in Simcoe, Ontario, whose illustrations appeared on New Yorker covers, died. He was 87.
The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky published a new book called “African Studies,” with a focus on the sub-Saharan region of the continent.
Patrice Bergeron, a center on the Boston Bruins, ended his magnificent 19-year career with a tearful goodbye to fans, writes David Waldstein. But will he retire from the N.H.L.?
A native of Ancaster, Ontario, Shawna Richer lives in Toronto and is an assistant sports editor for The New York Times. She has spent more than 25 years as a sports journalist in Canada and is the author of “The Kid: A Season With Sidney Crosby and the New N.H.L.”
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