If You Could Read My Mind
November 18, 2020 8:28 PM   Subscribe

 
Now this is music criticism. Here is my favorite part:
If you’ll permit me a sidebar, I don’t know what authority decreed that Gordon Lightfoot’s music, like all other commercially viable music these past 70 years, must have non-tonal banging in the form of a drumset mic-ed six or ten ways. A thousand various objects, hit with as many other objects, can make a groove. These include not only woodblocks hit with mallets and storm drains hit with human breath but, more conventionally, piano keys hit with fingers and, as on dozens of Lightfoot tracks, guitar strings hit with metal picks. When a drummer is fitting a song into a metronomic frame, announcing locational specifics (dit-dum dit-duh-dum — chorus), and little more, it’s uncertain what value he’s adding to the music. Most of Lightfoot’s songs are rhythmically transparent; their bars don’t beg to be firmly subdivided with kick and snare, nor new sections set up with broad strokes, for us to know where we are. It’s supererogatory, and often annoying, as when characters in plays delineate their motives or spell out their back stories, or when facial reactions to dramatic events in movies are shown in close-up. A drumkit has become a basic necessity in much modern music, and yet the kit is much less important than who’s sitting behind it. A non-creative drummer is very often like a brash flight attendant standing over you and explaining how seatbelts buckle.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 8:54 PM on November 18 [11 favorites]


Great stuff (although I have one nitpick, which is that he seems to have forgotten that “feeling no pain” means “drunk”).
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:30 PM on November 18 [10 favorites]


I could have done without this bit: "A vibrato-soaked baritone croon, perfect for seducing your grandmother or frightening black people but otherwise simply off-putting." Really, dude? The rest of it is interesting, if pretty uneven.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:37 PM on November 18 [10 favorites]


Fulks points out that Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald consists of four bars repeated forever, but this formula had already produced a huge hit for Lightfoot: Sundown is eight bars repeated forever.

But I have great affection for some of his more complicated songs and some very specific memories associated with his oeuvre. And then, for some reason, the lyrics to The Pony Man are what I use to test pens and keyboards even though they sort of squick me out.
posted by carmicha at 9:38 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]


Fulks points out that Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald consists of four bars repeated forever

The folkiest of folk songs all have super simple structure. The idea is to get people participating in the singing and the making of music, so if it's just three chords, four bars, and the truth, then you've got the crowd right there.

Even the fanciest of "porch music" which can involve quite a lot of instruments and soloing and stuff, at its core, has a very simple song structure so even the most basic players can participate with keeping the song going while others show off.

Not to get into a derail, but with regard to the comment about the drumming on Lightfoot's material.. Listen to John Denver's Rocky Mountain High album. It has basically zero drum kits on it. It does have percussion, but it's mostly not there except for the strummed guitars or played pianos. It's a fascinating album to consider in response to this observance about Lightfull.
posted by hippybear at 9:43 PM on November 18 [13 favorites]


I note his passing references to the faithfulness of Lightfoot’s sidemen, who mostly have been backing him up since the mid-seventies, give or take.

The Canadian folk scene is not huge and while I have never met Lightfoot, we have acquaintances in common. When Lightfoot wound up with his serious illness in 2002, his longtime band was idle during the lengthy period of his convalescence. I recall a mutual friend of mine and Lightfoot’s observing that acts touring and recording at the time would defer from hiring these guys because they were Gordon’s band and we couldn’t possibly. He said, “Yes you could possibly — these guys have bills to pay like the rest of us and they are dying for gigs.” Lightfoot’s illness left them all in limbo and broke for years.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:48 PM on November 18 [12 favorites]


Sure, lots of problematic prose that could only come from a late boomer or early gen-xer (myself included) but I'm impressed that anyone could be as obsessed with Lightfoot as Lightfoot is about tuning, and not be a die-hard fan.
posted by simra at 9:50 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]


My favorite punk/dive bar is also known for having the highest amount of Gordon Lightfoot on its non-DJ/live band rotation in the city.
posted by ryoshu at 10:19 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]


The guy has more money than he ever needs from royalties but has been on the road doing 50 or 60 shows a year for more than half a century.

Robbie Fulks: "Gordon Lightfoot has a far lustier appetite than I do for consonance, simple reiteration, and what I can’t think of a less judgmental term for than sappiness. But then it’s true that I’ve never written an “Early Morning Rain.” By the most gimlet-eyed count, Mr. Lightfoot has managed to get his body into the elusive electrical field and to produce songs this unimprovable at least half a dozen times. This puts him easily in the top tenth of the top one-percent of living songwriters."
posted by JackFlash at 10:23 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]


I only know Robbie Fulks from his appearance on Fresh Air something like 15 years ago. He sang Dancing Queen. I saved that bit on my iPhone and it’s been a favorite.
posted by neuron at 10:40 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]


He sang Dancing Queen.
Interesting. Whitely's version came out around the same time. Both close to haunting.
posted by Thella at 10:57 PM on November 18


I saw Lightfoot play on my birthday in 2018 at the last show in Massey Hall before it closed for renovations...

It was an amazing show and he sounded ... great? I mean there is definitely a sliding scale to these things but it was a strong performance and it had been 20 years since the last time I'd seen him live. But yeah he looked frail even if he didn't sound it. There is definitely an obsession to still be touring after all those years.
posted by cirhosis at 11:29 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]


I read the entire article.

My introduction to Gordon Lightfoot was someone my white boomer Canadian parents lauded for his hits while lamenting his "later decline." Fulks deals with that quite a bit.

hippybear: The folkiest of folk songs all have super simple structure. The idea is to get people participating in the singing and the making of music, so if it's just three chords, four bars, and the truth, then you've got the crowd right there.

This is the really amazing thing about a bunch of Lightfoot's songs and, as you say, about how it becomes "folk." The way "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is burned into certain people's minds is pretty hard to dismiss. Let's put it this way: if I had never heard that song, I wouldn't still be thinking about this so many years later.

Cold On The Shoulder (1975) and Summertime Dream (1976) yielded the hits “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” The first of these uses the phrase “rainy day” thirteen times across twenty-four lines, while “Fitzgerald,” despite its fine phrasework, is a single four-bar figure, repeated for five minutes and fifty-eight seconds. These labor-saving devices seem to signal a drop in agility and aspiration.

I don't think this is fair. The album he's citing also contains the eponymous "Cold on the Shoulder," and to seize on the criticism about the drums that J.K. Seazer pull-quoted above, I really like what Tony Rice did with the song. Because, well, no drums! There were also technically no drums on the original.

And I can't help but requote this:

“Fitzgerald,” despite its fine phrasework, is a single four-bar figure, repeated for five minutes and fifty-eight seconds.

Yep, that's kind of the point. He was telling a story. He was telling a story about people stuck on a ship in a roiling lake that, despite being a lake, is massive beyond the comprehension of people who do not live next to such a lake. That suspended chord at the beginning of the progression of "Fitzgerald" works. It was compelling via its repetition. So. Lyrically, he has revised the song in live performances since more information about the wreck and its probable causes has come to light. And that songwriter, well, he's shown up most years for the annual memorial for the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald at the Mariners’ Church of Detroit. It was virtual this year for obvious reasons. But he's not been cynical about it. He keeps coming to that memorial.

Since that can't happen this year, here's the Arthur M. Anderson ("the searchers all say...") arriving in Duluth:

Arthur M Anderson Master Salute to the Edmund Fitzgerald 11/10/2020

I don’t know what authority decreed that Gordon Lightfoot’s music, like all other commercially viable music these past 70 years, must have non-tonal banging in the form of a drumset mic-ed six or ten ways. A thousand various objects, hit with as many other objects, can make a groove.

Ummmm...maybe to underwrite this dude screeching?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:34 PM on November 18 [12 favorites]


Robbie Fulks is probably too damn smart for his own good as a songwriter. From the NYT a few years back - "one part artful country, one part artful sendup of country, and one part a little of everything else."

Recommended:
From his debut back in the day, the delightful tribute to old-time country, "The Buck Starts Here", about the soothing ability of Buck et al. to soothe his hurtin' heart.

Or this ballad, filled with lap-steel (mandolin here) and starting with lyrics about "a world filled with wonder", concluding that "God isn't real".

One of my personal favourites is "Let's Kill Saturday Night", which feels sort of like a country answer to Born To Run; it works just as well without all the production.

Almost the diametrical opposite of that one is a track called "Night Accident", which is a chilling, stripped down story song with amazing lyrics that reveal with everything they leave out. It's a Hitchcock movie dressed as a six-minute song.

More recently, a song called "Fountains of Wayne Hotline", wherein he calls the titular hotline twice for help in writing what is also an excellent Fountains of Wayne pastiche-cum-tribute.
posted by Superilla at 11:41 PM on November 18 [21 favorites]


Thanks to the title of the post, all I can think of is how more and more people will be confused at the idea of drug stores selling paperback novels.
posted by wierdo at 1:02 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


The Canadian folk scene is not huge...

Speaking of people who write songs about shipwrecks, now I wonder: did Gordon Lightfoot and Stan Rogers have any relationship?
posted by carmicha at 2:14 AM on November 19


Thanks to the title of the post, all I can think of is how more and more people will be confused at the idea of drug stores selling paperback novels.

Unfortunately, "CVS's selling sim cards for ebooks" just doesn't scan with the vibe of the song.
posted by fairmettle at 2:50 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, "CVS's selling sim cards for ebooks" just doesn't scan with the vibe of the song.

I was going to go the other way with Amazon now becoming a pharmacy, but yes.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:20 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Also, maybe I am a Lightfoot apologist, but I feel like his most misogynistic songs are all written from a position where he knows he is being a piece of shit. I don't know, things are complicated and man he has some good songs.

Speaking of, the Paul Simon comparison at the end might be apt but it isn't exactly fair. I consider myself a pretty big fan of Paul Simon and although I know he has been making new music I am not really familiar with it. I mean who on earth has had a rock solid chart topping career spanning so many decades? Tom Petty? It seems unfair to hold Lightfoot to that standard since it is pretty clear that no one has ever achieved that level of success.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:25 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


These labor-saving devices seem to signal a drop in agility and aspiration.

I don't think this is fair


It isn't that Fulks is criticizing Wreck as a song, he's just using these examples to chart what he takes as the beginning point of a decline: And sure enough, the next few years saw a steep rise in dull metric blocks, limpid childlike novelties, and anaphora-driven stanzas.

The essay is a critical assessment of an artist through their body of work, and that body of work a bit through the life of the artist. It's a summation of the entirety of a career, not so much involved in digging into detail about individual works and why they may succeed or fail.

Approaching an artist in this fashion is something that really only has significance for people so invested in the artist that the entirety of the career is "present" for consideration or for people who are trying to get some better understanding of how a given artist fits into a history of the form they worked in. Most people will never approach someone like Lightfoot in this way, they'll listen to some of his music, mostly the more popular songs of course, and those will lack the context of the surrounding music and development Lightfoot went through. Appreciating the songs as songs by themselves without that context is a different thing than the essay sets out to do.

At the end of the essay, Fulks talks about how Lightfoot's music is tied to an era and that is true for listeners versed enough in musical history to recognize how music has changed over the eras, but there is also perhaps some need to note that how we listen to music now, where genres, eras, and histories, can be indulged in such a haphazard, context-free manner that we are more apt to talk about it in different ways than before.

Some binge bodies of work, hearing whole careers that played over decades in days, or jump back and forth from era to era, listening to things without consideration for development, or just listen without body of work or era at all, just their own pleasure. Each of these can shift how someone relates to a individual work or artist, this essay takes a familiar enough approach, updated to contain some consideration for moral values, which wasn't always the case with these summations, but other approaches can be made that might better fit how people listen, even if not the entirety of an artist's career and their place. (While this essay isn't a hagiography, talking about artists/celebrities as if they were set aside from the rest of humanity does obviously have many problems of its own.)
posted by gusottertrout at 3:35 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]


I don’t know what authority decreed that Gordon Lightfoot’s music, like all other commercially viable music these past 70 years, must have non-tonal banging in the form of a drumset mic-ed six or ten ways.

it must be the same authority who decreed that all the weird little doodads on drums would be called tuners - and put tuner knobs on drum machines and programs that never see a microphone, being virtual

what crap - and i'm not a big gordon lightfoot fan, either, just a musician who has a better appreciation of drums as an instrument
posted by pyramid termite at 3:36 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]


I'd actually seriously consider an expanded version of this for the 33-1/3 book series.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:37 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]


all I can think of is how more and more people will be confused at the idea of drug stores selling paperback novels.

Drugstores in Canada do still sell paperback novels.
posted by oulipian at 4:41 AM on November 19 [5 favorites]


Drugstores in Canada do still sell paperback novels.

Yeah, I am puzzled that people might be puzzled by this. Every time I have been in a Shoppers Drug Mart or a Jean-Coutu or whatever in Canada, there always seems to be a shelf with magazines and word search books and a few mass-market paperbacks. I can’t recall seeing any such things in pharmacies in the US or on Europe or Asia, but my trips to drugstores abroad have always been a little more focussed on finding the sunscreen or cold medication or what have you.

Do drug stores elsewhere not have a small selection of reading material? Is this a local peculiarity I never knew to be a peculiarity?

As a side note, the FPP sent me off on a tangent reading about Lightfoot for a couple of hours last night: I learned Cathy Smith — Lightfoot’s longtime on-and-off fling, the one who produced in him the jealousy he sang about in “Sundown,” and yes, the same one who injected Belushi with the fatal speedball — died this summer in Maple Ridge BC, where she had been living in a seniors home.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:04 AM on November 19 [5 favorites]


Some drug stores in the US still sell a few paperbacks, along with magazines that aren't tied to current events, cheap dvds, and the like. Rite-Aids and Walgreens often do, for example.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:06 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]


I can’t listen to “early morning rain” without hearing Dale Gribble’s voice in my head at the end of the first verse. In the early morning rain with a dollar in my hand, with an aching in my heart, and my pockets full of sand (pocket sand!).
posted by mhoye at 6:11 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]


I have tickets to see Gord, at a venue around the corner from my home. Original date was last October, which was rescheduled because he injured himself. New date was June 7 of this year, which was rescheduled due to Covid. Newest date is June 23 , 2021. I wonder if I'll ever get to see him play live. I grew up on listening to Gordon, courtesy of my dad.
posted by sundrop at 6:16 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


They do sell novels, and so do grocery stores, sometimes at a significant discount--I've picked up more than a few of Stephen King's latter-day works in hardcover that way. Plus, of course, still having a magazine rack; I'm always still kind of astounded when I go in and find out that some magazines are still being published.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:39 AM on November 19


When I was a kid, whenever I had to get a prescription, my parents let me pick out a book/magazine/Peanuts compilation to read when I was sick in bed...a tradition my family has followed, so I am amazed at the concept of a drugstore without books and magazines.

Anyways, I now know more about Gordon Lightfoot than ever and enjoyed this article quite a lot. Like many Canadians I had to learn The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, and since we live at the side of Lake Ontario, when it's a particularly windy and treacherous day I have frequently put it on for my kids. I think they appreciate the former tradition more than the latter. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 7:05 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Am I better than Gordon Lightfoot? An essay.
posted by Stoof at 7:31 AM on November 19 [8 favorites]


Great article. Well written criticism is harder and harder to find. Thank you for posting!

My small derail. I must be mainlining Metafilter. The Wreck of the Edmondfitzgerald is one of the "story songs" that I have introduced to my children. They hate it. Hate. It. So, as a good father, I play it loudly, with the windows rolled down any time my kids are in the car with me. As we got home the other night, we were probably near the "Fellas it's been good to know ya!" part. My kids were scrambling to get to the door handles so they could escape. I held onto a leg (backseat) and an arm (front seat) and we began the struggle for survival. A truce was had however: They negotiated the right to have me turn off The Wreck at any time during the next year and I negotiated that they would have to memorize and be able to sing the first stanza on two occasions in the next year. Failure by either party means a financial fine. Good times.
posted by zerobyproxy at 7:36 AM on November 19 [20 favorites]


It’s supererogatory, and often annoying,

if this particular paragraph is any indication, ummm, this Fulks guy's prose is definitely annoying and, upon consulting a dictionary, supererogatory.
posted by philip-random at 8:08 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]


I never liked "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" But "Song For A Winter's Night" is beautiful and evocative. But then I am more into lyrics than drums. Gordon Lightfoot is ok with me, but what do I know?
posted by mermayd at 8:13 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


as a Canadian kid born in 1959 who grew up through the 1960s and 70s, Gordon Lightfoot's music was pretty much always there. A fact, kind of like the weather. It mostly didn't speak to me in any particular way, except perhaps Black Day In July, which had a scary ripped-from-the-headlines feel even five years after the fact. And Sundown was hard to ignore as well, the sheer creepiness of it casting malign shadows across the bland top 40 pop of the early-mid 1970s.

But it never really occurred to me to take the man seriously until I read a mid-80s Bob Dylan interview where he said, 'Gordon Lightfoot, every time I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever.' High praise, which definitely opened my mind.

Can't say I'm as big a fan as Mr. Dylan was (still is?) but there have certainly been great pleasures and treasures to behold. My current fave is The Watchman's Gone. I think it's a ghost story.

and now, I suppose I'll read TFA. Try to anyway.
posted by philip-random at 8:25 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


I'm a Canadian born in 1960, and my experience is similar to philip-random's - because of Canadian content regulations in place on Canadian radio stations, I heard Lightfoot pretty much constantly.

I've never really thought of myself as a fan: I (perhaps unfairly) recall his folk songs as being overly serious and his love songs as being overly sentimental. But this thread reminded me of "Summer Side of Life", which for some reason always breaks my heart when I hear it. Perhaps I need to listen to more of his music.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 8:48 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Most people will never approach someone like Lightfoot in this way, they'll listen to some of his music, mostly the more popular songs of course, and those will lack the context of the surrounding music and development Lightfoot went through. Appreciating the songs as songs by themselves without that context is a different thing than the essay sets out to do.

Yeah, I do really like this style of music essay -- looking at an artist's output end-to-end is bound to be more enlightening and interesting than one that zooms in on one particular song or album, even if one is not on board with some of its points.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:13 AM on November 19 [5 favorites]


I hated this essay, even though it's well-researched and has some interesting insights. I just hated the underlying tone, because it's snide and condescending. I agree with most everything he says, though.

(random Lightfoot anecdote: Toni Tenille's memoir mentions that she visited a party at Chez Gord when she was in Toronto, everyone at the party was wasted. Gord was in the kitchen, feeding a family of raccoons.)
posted by ovvl at 9:43 AM on November 19 [5 favorites]


Sure, the Poor Heartsick Narrator, with his dollar bill and his unspeakable ache that must be sung, is a trope of self-pitying masculine songsmithery.

This is the La Brea Tar Pit of the singer-songwriter game: it's seemingly pretty hard to not decay into being just a person who complains about getting dumped all the time, but who happens to have an acoustic guitar going while they do it. You want to pass a note up to the stage "Can't you write a song about your dog or something else?"

I enjoyed the discussion of Lightfoot's tuning fanaticism: "There’s a number of absurd, time-wasting things he could be doing. "
posted by thelonius at 9:51 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Gord was in the kitchen, feeding a family of raccoons

This is pretty much peak Toronto right there.

(For people not from Toronto: we have a lot of raccoons in the city - and by "a lot", I mean "more than that many". Here's an article providing an overview of some recent memorable Toronto raccoon moments.)
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:54 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]


Speaking of people who write songs about shipwrecks, now I wonder: did Gordon Lightfoot and Stan Rogers have any relationship?

I can’t recall that they ever even played on the same bill, though there may be some Mariposa or Festival of Friends lineup I am overlooking. Stan died when I was a teenager (and a teenager who was listening to ‘60s music) so I never knew him, although I have spent time with his kids and his widow and his brother. I have never thought to ask any of them about Lightfoot, although I recall Stan once or twice expressed an admiration for Canadian Railroad Trilogy in interviews.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:54 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I do really like this style of music essay -- looking at an artist's output end-to-end is bound to be more enlightening and interesting than one that zooms in on one particular song or album, even if one is not on board with some of its points.

As someone who is only passingly familiar with Lightfoot, having heard maybe a dozen or so songs, mostly just the popular ones repeatedly and not really thought much at all about him beyond a moderate okayness to it all, and was never going to look into his career at length, I quite liked the piece. Not because of the value judgements per se, though I did come away with an added appreciation of a couple of those early songs I'd never heard before for the essay getting me to seek them out, but just for getting some sense of shape to his career that I now can file away as reference for any future time when I might hear more or find reason to reflect on things the essay mentions connecting to Lightfoot.

Value judgements can always be questioned, and I'm sure some enterprising Canadian has written more on the subject that does just that, but any considered take that, drum aside notwithstanding, tries to avoid hyperbole and insistence on worth is welcome for providing some foundation to test against. Some of the most useful criticism I've read is that which has provided reasoned support for claims I could challenge because there was a strong structure to the argument that could be addressed rather than one erected around assertions of taste and personal reverie. This essay has a little of that, but gives more than enough solid rationale to the considerations to qualify as being well worth having read.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:56 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]




For people not from Toronto: we have a lot of raccoons in the city - and by "a lot", I mean "more than that many"

As many raccoons as you can picture, and then a bunch more than that.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:59 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


I really don't mind that he weaves back and forth between admiration and fairly harsh criticism. He explains why several times throughout the essay, most memorably when he compares assessing Lightfoot as one might a family member.

He also expresses sincere awe at Lightfoot's achievement:
But then it’s true that I’ve never written an “Early Morning Rain.” By the most gimlet-eyed count, Mr. Lightfoot has managed to get his body into the elusive electrical field and to produce songs this unimprovable at least half a dozen times. This puts him easily in the top tenth of the top one-percent of living songwriters...
I like this, too:
On a simpler human scale, we can admire this man’s work ethic, his decision against following up any particular hit song with another of its kind, his devotion to his players, his sheer longevity. Let the record show that he avoided some of the traps of his long era: no disco, wah-wah guitar, or delay-drenched snare drums mar his work. His early recordings — this hit me pretty hard — have a springtime glow to them. He sounds gleefully drunk on his own aliveness and potential. I can control my voice at the extremes of its natural range, write a symphony about a ten-thousand-year geological epoch, and make women bring me coffee on a silver tray besides! Who wouldn’t be gleeful?
I'd love for someone to write at such a pitch, someday.

My own Lightfoot history begins with WOTEF, as it does for most kids of the Seventies. One day in high school, I was at my uncle's house and we were talking music, and I mentioned GL. He put on some Greg Brown and said, try this. That was nice.

I had no idea who Robbie Fulks was before this morning. I've listened to a couple of his songs today, and he's pretty good! My Fulks-ian assessment of Fulks: he'd be quite welcome on my regional university's public radio Sunday afternoon folk program, and I'd listen to his songs most of the way through, most of the time.
posted by Caxton1476 at 10:28 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Robbie is a great live show. We’ve seen him every chance we’ve had since 2006 or so, which has been a lot. We even tried to hire him to play our wedding, which he politely declined, though he referred us to someone else who referred us to someone else who ended up being perfect.
posted by ghharr at 10:34 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Let the record show that he avoided some of the traps of his long era: no disco, wah-wah guitar, or delay-drenched snare drums mar his work.

He sure didn't avoid the trap of having his songs drenched in overblown string sections. I hear a song like "If You Could Read My Mind" or "Song For A Winter's Night" and all I can think is, there's a pretty good song in there, hidden somewhere underneath all that schmaltz.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:58 AM on November 19 [5 favorites]


My Fulks-ian assessment of Fulks: he'd be quite welcome on my regional university's public radio Sunday afternoon folk program, and I'd listen to his songs most of the way through, most of the time.

I turned on my car radio one Sunday afternoon and heard him doing this one on Prairie Home Companion. First I’d heard of him but I was sufficiently impressed.
posted by atoxyl at 11:20 AM on November 19


I met him when he sat behind us at a Pete Seeger concert in Toronto. He was trying to be all effortlessly cool, but that wavered into fanboying out hard when Tao and Pete beckoned him to play.
posted by scruss at 11:48 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Interesting criticism. I came into it expecting that I would disagree with the author about Lightfoot's decline, but then checked my albums and realized that the ones I have listened to repeatedly are basically everything up to 1980. That's where my favorites are. So, I guess in the end I decided it was fair criticism and worth thinking about.

Sundown though. It remains one of my favorite songs. Ever since I was a kid and my parents first played it for us (well, for them, but we had to hear it because we only had one stereo system). It's dark, and threatening, and full of controlled anger, and I love it. I'm not a jealous person by any means, but damn it is a good song.

(I make my 11 year old listen to Gordon Lightfoot too. If I had to learn what muskeg is because of Canadian Railway Trilogy, then he has to as well. Some day he will be the one picking the music, and I hope that the stuff I learned from my parents to love will also make his list as well.)
posted by caution live frogs at 12:00 PM on November 19 [4 favorites]


I listened to quite a few of Fulks' linked songs, and I love the complexity and depth of the instrumentation and the way he turns what could be the limitations of his voice inside out by integrating it perfectly into the whole.

But I think I might have enjoyed them more if he sang in a language I didn't understand, because Fulks thinks he knows and deigns to let his audience in on it, yet his understanding tends to be homiletic and even platitudinous. He seems not to realize, though he may sense it occasionally, that great songs don't explain things. They bring people into presences no one can explain and make them feel it. I didn't get much of that from Fulks.
posted by jamjam at 1:16 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


My best friend’s mom played Lightfoot’s music all the time after her divorce from my friend’s father. We would roll our eyes and call him Gordon Heavyhand.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 1:21 PM on November 19 [3 favorites]


Lightfoot is such a Canadian thing, that the lyrics to one of his songs was in my grade 2 reader. I can't remember which, but let's hope it wasn't Sundown, lol.
posted by aclevername at 1:37 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


The Wreck as has been shortened, is a masterpiece of artful lyric, pinned to a the particular culture of shipping on The Great Lakes, and a tragedy as imagined by the writer. Extra points because it is in 2/4 time or whatever it is called, you could dance a chunky waltz to it. All last week I had that song in my head, and I know every word, and I was breaking it down for its amazing quality. It stands with me as a piece of Canadiana, like we would say Americana down here, like the Concord Hymn, or other odes to the lost.

"With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?"

All waltzing with that amazing rise from the guitar, as if it were asking questions of eternity, just a perfect thing. It kind of rings like Marty Robbin's El Paso, or Glen Campbells Wichita Lineman, or Glen Campbell singing Early Morning Rain. The tradition of the troubador, lives in these lines. I just love The Wreck, so much, then again I also loved the sappy, fake poem, Hiawatha too. I am a sucker for a good line, especially if it is sung in waltz time.

The guy that breaks this all down, to sub atomic particles of sound, and complains about over tuning, and over thinks the whole thing. I guess that folkies had a time in the sixties and seventies, not just the acid rockers, and jazz musicians, and everyone else involved in that industry. It is not surprising, I recently saw a portrait of three rock musicians and Gordon Lightfoot, at Gordon's house, people I would'nt have thought would hang together. Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan at Gordon's place, singing together, playing acousitic instruments.
posted by Oyéah at 5:44 PM on November 19 [8 favorites]


It stands with me as a piece of Canadiana, like we would say Americana down here

Perhaps even more Canadiana is the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. It was commissioned by the CBC to celebrate the Canadian Centennial in 1967. He is said to have composed and written it in three days. It celebrates the backbreaking efforts of the manual laborers who built the first Canadian transcontinental railroad in the 1880s.
posted by JackFlash at 5:56 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


I think when Fulks gets down to the actual music criticism I think there's a lot of substance there and I don't think he's wrong (that narrowing down of the decline is spot on I think). The digressions into sordid pop culture histories, for me, are largely not something I care for, especially in music criticism. However, I do like this line if only because that's totally not what I was thinking when I heard this song but now I will never be able to unthink it:
“Pussy Willows, Cattails” (a Russ Meyer-like vision of “catbirds and cornfields… slanted rays and colored days… naked limbs and wheat bins”
I came to Lightfoot a bit later as my dad hated Lightfoot with a deep & incomprehensible passion. So we were a Lightfoot free zone growing up which was difficult because of the ubiquity of his songs here in Canada, especially in the 70s. I didn't really understand the loathing... My dad was of that generation and even liked that kind of music. Fulks' apt description of Lightfoot as "the Jim Croce of Canada" completely reminded me of my argument with my dad about his dislike of Lightfoot with me invoking Jim Croce as a comparable performer he loved. It boiled down to my dad thinking Lightfoot was a shithead, even if he had some good songs in the old days (i.e. before 1980), he wasn't going to support someone like "that". My father never elaborated what he meant by "that", which I didn't really understand until I was older and knew a bit more about Lightfoot's history (particularly with women which is totally something my dad can't look past). In the end, I think my dad and I only agree on Stan Rogers who we both prefer (Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage never fails to get the feels out of me while Wreck Of... never seems to get much out of me and I tend to prefer the Rheostatics version more anyways).

While we can talk about Lightfoot, his music, his history I think for me there's something missing from this long essay. Its not Fulks' fault for not being Canadian so I can't expect him to do the work that we don't bother to do with our artists and culture but I think there's an element of Canadian identity in Lightfoot's work that is wrapped up in Canadians' idea of place that would be worth dissecting. For a time, his songs really did seem to be some kind of Canadian aural terroir. Coming to grips with that in something akin to Carl Wilson's 33 1/3 book on Celine's Let's Talk About Love written about Lightfoot in general or more specifically about the Railroad Trilogy or Wreck of... or Paperback Hero (if only for the memory the film that it conjures up for me) could be a great read if not an important one.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:25 PM on November 19 [5 favorites]


I have to say, Rheostatics is possibly the last band I ever expected to see mentioned in this thread. I was unaware of this cover until now. I only have one of their albums.

That video is not available to me here, but this version is available to me.
posted by hippybear at 9:50 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


No mention of Gordo's politics. Probably off dimeadozen, I once stumbled on a show of his from 1966 or so. Behind the tape hiss you can hear him disparaging students for marching against US involvement in the Vietnam war.

My copy of the show died with the PC I downloaded it onto, and now I just have a torrent-hostile laptop, but it's here if anyone has an account and wants to verify it.

And BTW, Lightfoot was all over Canadian top-30 radio from around 1969 through Sundown.
posted by morspin at 10:28 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Ashwagandha - Dave Bidini's Writing Gordon Lightfoot tries to do something vaguely akin to what you describe, but doesn't succeed -- not for me anyway. I picked it up with great interest, ended up doing a lot of skimming.
posted by philip-random at 10:33 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Me too, phillip-random. Canadian born in '68 I had a lot of Gordon growing up. I think my fav Gord-related thing is the SCTV sketch "Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written".
posted by Meatbomb at 12:44 AM on November 20 [8 favorites]


Going to university in the 90s and living in Southern Ontario as an adult I've had a lot of exposure to the Rheos (my partner is a huge fan and seemingly just everybody else in my peer group) and saw them during their heyday dozens of times, and even seen them perform Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald a few times. hippybear, for a certain kind of young adult in Southern Ontario in the 90s, especially the album Melville (with Wreck), they were a big deal. Even in Canada I don't think they ever got as popular as that moment in time (maybe in '94 with the release of the film Whale Music, which was a hit in Canada, was bigger but not that much more). So for better or worse their version is often the one I think of with that song (weirdly like Bruce Cockburn's Lovers in A Dangerous Time and the cover version by the Bare Naked Ladies from early in their career).

I tried to read Writing Gordon Lightfoot but I bounced off of it because of the writing style and his idiosyncratic take (but maybe I'll try again with it) but yeah something in that direction with a broader scope I think would be worthwhile.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:29 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]


My view is that Fulks approached this project with some interesting ideas and criticisms about Lightfoot, but that he burned-out on the task-completion of binge-listening to those hours of filler in the back catalog, hence the overall resentful tone in the essay split with moments of grudging admiration. I kinda get it, that obsession with intonation, re-recording old hits, unimaginative arrangements (a good & a bad thing, as he says), and the highly-polished but mostly un-fascinating tracks in the latter years of his recording career. It's enough to make anyone feel a bit salty. Fulks probably would've been happier just writing an essay about Gord's hit singles, I know I would've.

The unique thing about Gord Lightfoot is the eerie depth of his melodies in his best work. His melodic composition style is really something else.
posted by ovvl at 3:57 PM on November 20 [2 favorites]


Ack. Reading through the comments here brought me back to to having a particular Lightfoot trauma in that my grade 5 teacher entered our entire class to sing "Pussywillows, Cattails" at some choir competition. We had to stand as a group singing that song over and over and over again (without any useful coaching from said teacher, who was accompanying us on the piano) such that over the weeks we were practicing it, various students would get lightheaded and ask to sit down. This happened to me twice. I almost blacked out on both occasions.

For that reason, I hate that song more than I hate any other piece of music.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:27 PM on November 20 [1 favorite]


Also, we didn't even place in that competition. It was all for nought.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:28 PM on November 20 [1 favorite]


Should have stuck with the mandolin.
posted by JackFlash at 4:43 PM on November 20 [2 favorites]


my grade 5 teacher entered our entire class to sing "Pussywillows, Cattails" at some choir competition

...That is really weird, mandolin conspiracy. I can kinda see how someone might think a children's choir could pull off that song, but I can't imagine it actually sounding good.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 4:46 PM on November 20 [1 favorite]


but I can't imagine it actually sounding good.

Narrator voice: It didn't.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:59 PM on November 20 [3 favorites]


I went back to Fulks other music writing, he blathers uncritical gush about R Sexsmith, who is a competent songwriter but often over-rated.
posted by ovvl at 5:37 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]


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