„Remember that guitar in a museum in Tennessee ?....The name plate on the glass brought back 20 memories…and the scratches on the face told of all the times he’d fell….singing up the stories he could tell.“ John Sebastian (Stories He Could Tell)
There’s a book by David Gahr. Out of print. Inside is a photo of Gordon Lightfoot’s song list, taped to the top of his Gibson 12 string guitar at Newport in 1965. The songs are written in ink, smeared from sweat or rain ; or maybe they‘re late-night motel bourbon stains. This was back when people sang and swapped songs in rooms full of cigarette smoke; dawn light seeping through the yellow window shades. There‘s almost 80 songs listed on this paper scrap, scotch-taped to the antique guitar wood: his own classics: « Early Morning Rain », « The Way I Feel », « Ribbon of Darkness », and « For Lovin Me »; and Dylan covers: « Girl From the North Country », « Hollis Brown », « Blowin in the Wind », « Don’t Think Twice »; country-western gems : « El Paso », « The Auctioneer » and « Six Days on the Road »; Folk covers like Ian Tyson’s « Four Strong Winds » and « Red Velvet », and folk standards like « Old Blue ». A few rockaabilly numbers. That mix! Folk, Blues, Country,Gospel, Rockabilly and Rock and Roll. If there is any mystery where great songwriters come from, this tear-stained list is a black and white document of the homework. Lightfoot sang and wrote from a deeply rooted knowledge of roots music. Then he rolled and wrote his own songs. Still does….But let‘s move forward 35 years to a folk festival in Ontario, where they‘re in the midst of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute. Lightfoot had been in hospital for two monthes recovering from an aneurism. The prognosis aint good. Suddenly the crowd parts, like the Red Sea, and people are shrieking and applauding, and here’s Lightfoot himself, walking through the crowd with a guitar case. Damn, it’s Jesus coming to town on a mule, armed with an antique wooden machine gun. Then he’s on stage, singing an old song. People are weeping. Quite a moment. I had the chills. Lightfoot waves and retreats to a trailer dressing room and dissappears. The door slams. The applause is deafening. The only problem is my guitar is in that dressing room, and I’m on stage in 10 minutes for the tribute. I politely knocked on the trailer door, and Lightfoot bid me come in. He was sitting in the corner, grizzled and shakey-legged, smoking a cigarette. He looks at me: « What song you gonna sing out there, kid? » I said, « Your song, ‘For Lovin’ Me’ » He motions toward his guitar with his cigarrette. « Here, take my guitar and sing a little for me. I wanna see if you’ve got it right. » (I thought, holy shit. Im auditioning for Gordon Lightfoot. Heavy dues.) I picked up his revered old Martin axe ; it glowed in my hands. My fingers burned. I sang a verse or two of his wonderful song. « That was great,“ he said. „You sing it great, kid. Go out there and kill em“….I handed Lightfoot back his old Martin and glided out out he room. Later on he made a point of coming up to me and telling me how much he enjoyed my version, and my work with Ian Tyson on « Navajo Rug ». I thought back to that old stained set list on his 12 string at Newport in 65. And all the motel rooms and miles and the dignity of the man. A songwriter. It was like running into Homer, and he hands you his lute. A few troubadors still walk among us, with stained set lists taped to the top of their road battered axes. Old guitars soak up every room and song and situation they’ve been involved with…and oh, the stories they can tell. For a moment, in Lightfoot’s dressing room, I knew I was at the center of my universe. I knew why I was a songwriter. Amen.
(If the punctuation looks wierd I’m writing this on a Swiss computer in Calgary and it’s 35 below zero.TR)