Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lightfoot`s Guitar

„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)


Johnnie H said...

Wow! Heard your chat with David Ward earlier this afternoon and then later on, David mentioned this Blog and posted the link on the CKUA web site. When I was in my teens and early twenties, Lightfoot was not quite edgy enough for me; perhaps not electric enough. But as I've moved into middle age and revisited his catalogue, I've really come to appreciate what a true artists he is. That was beautifully written - brought a tear to this glass eye. Thanks.

Saddle Tramp said...


I had the great fortune to attend a concert of his back in the early 70's and the misfortune of a missed opportunity to see him again. It was maybe a year ago or so. Not for sure. I was coming through Mesquite, Nevada and did a double-take when I saw his name on a casino's marquee announcing his upcoming concert date. I had heard him interviewed on NPR not long before this and was saddened to hear of his health problems. Cancer I seem to recall. I knew the clock was ticking and checked ahead on
his next concert dates. Nothing worked. Lightfoot did admit in the interview that his " Carefree Highway " was inspired by the highway of that same name that I have crossed south of Sedona, AZ. Everytime I pass the Carefree Highway now it is singing. I think you would have to go back as far as Leadbelly to find a 12 string guitar that has put out as much truth and beauty as Gordon Lightfoot's has done. Leadbelly, King of the 12 string in the South and Gordon Lightfoot reigning in the North. Timeless class and
talent that warms your soul everytime. Thank God for Canada. Tom, thanks for taking us along with you . Sure hope my timing lines up with one of your U.S. dates when
you return. Have a great time until then ( you lucky dog.)

-saddle tramp

Driving into a full and rising yellow moon cradled on the highway in front of me " In Somewhere USA " still grinding it out and dodging tumbleweeds in a very strong side wind.

Neil Crabtree said...

I first heard Lightfoot's songs on Peter Paul and Mary album, which may have been called Album, now that I think back, 1967 I'd say, the same record had Dylan's When the Ship Comes In. Early Morning Rain and For Lovin' Me on the same album or I'm mind melding great music. Then 2 years later, taking my first acid with some friends in Richmond, we were all peaking and someone put on a Gordon Lightfoot album and I was amazed that he had such a voice. We sat stunned and delighted to listen to that voice tell tales of love and loss so simple and profound. You're a lucky man, TR. And to have GL call you kid. What a trip that must have been.

editor said...

Great story.

Lightfoot is one of the greats for sure. Some of his songs will be immortal, I think. Once again, it's that "rootedness" that makes the difference. Creates timelessness, which is essential to lasting art.

Saddle Tramp said...



I assume you are talking about his abdominal aortic anuerysm that occurred in 2002 that he has recovered from. I fell into his interview already in progress. Perhaps he was dispelling the rumor of cancer. Such is unqualified information as I offered. Thankfully, Gordon is back on the road and is performing and touring in 2009. A troubador to the core. I wish him carefree highways and you as well.

-saddle tramp
Somewhere Else U.S.A.

P.S. Yes Editor! " No root . . . No fruit " to quote somebody. Nature is still running the show!

Unknown said...

Quoth Saddle Tramp:
"I think you would have to go back as far as Leadbelly to find a 12 string guitar that has put out as much truth and beauty as Gordon Lightfoot's has done. Leadbelly, King of the 12 string in the South and Gordon Lightfoot reigning in the North."

Gordon Bok....perhaps

Saddle Tramp said...

Yes Peter . . .

Perhaps it would be best to establish fiefdoms over kingdoms. This is why I typically abhor lists and categories. Road signs at best, but not the road. Gordon Bok should most definitely have mention. Point well taken. I have my own personal reasons. As I have said previously, there is no metric for quality in art. It is not a foot race. [ We ] know it to the degree and level of the refinement of our taste. And it is a taste. One listen to or look at Gordon Bok's work along with his spirit cannot deny his caliber. Peter, thanks
for adding him.

-saddle tramp

Just down the road from Sinclair Lewis' boyhood home

Unknown said...

Great story. Think I have heard you tell that one on stage before. Have been listening to Gord's music since the first album in the late 60's.Have had the great pleasure of seeing Gord perform on many occassions over the years. Have very good seats for his show on April 10th in Vancouver. Also saw him 18 or so months ago on his last tour. First time I ever saw an artist get a standing "O" as he walked on stage to start a show.I'm sure everyone in the crowd had thought they had seen the last of him because of his health problems. His voice has had some changes, somewhat similar to what has taken place with Ian Tyson,though not as pronounced as Ian's.Guess all the years take there toll.He can't get to some of the places with his voice that he did in his younger years,but is still an amazing talent. Know we will enjoy his show as much as we did yours on Salt Spring Island. Be safe in your travels.

Charlene said...

My first concert, Gordon Lightfoot at the Civic Center in Lansing, Michigan. It was 1977, I was 12. My best friend and I became cool that night because one of the high school kids recognized us from the block and nodded his head to us.

Growing up in Michigan I rode through the woodlands and valleys as a horseman wild and free with Gordon Lightfoot and now I'm riding Black Jack Persing's horse chasing Pancho Villa with Tom Russell through the desert here in El Paso.

Your story touched my soul and brought a tear of joy to my eye thinking of how many places I've been during my life by just playing a record or listening to a cd.

I've swam the oceans with Big Blue, touched the electricity on a power line, went down with the sailors of the Edmond Fitzgerald, and even tried pulling Issac Lewis to shore.

God knew what he was doing when he invented music, horses, and when he was handing out talent. Thank you again Mr. Russell for sharing yours with us.

Charlene Applegate, El Paso, TX

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