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Canada’s musical community weighs in on Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘genius’ and influence

Anne Murray, Tom Cochrane and Sharon Hampson among those paying tribute to late songwriter
Gordon Lightfoot and his wife attended the induction ceremonies into the Walk of Fame as guests, Friday June, 1, 2001, in Toronto, Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ J.P. Moczulski

Anne Murray carried many tunes throughout her singing career but she says the lyrical quality of a Gordon Lightfoot song rose above most others.

The retired East Coast performer recalled her memories of Lightfoot, who died of natural causes on Monday at age 84, as they both came up in Canada’s music scene.

Lightfoot was several years ahead of her on the road to fame, which meant that as a cast member on CBC’s music television show “Singalong Jubilee” in the 1960s, she sometimes performed covers of his songs.

“We used to do all of them — ‘For Lovin’ Me,’ ‘Steel Rail Blues’ — the songs were just so good,” she said by phone from Halifax.

“The lyrics were easy to wrap your voice around. They were so personal and yet they all had such a universal feel to them and appealed to a lot of people … anyone would want to sing them.”

Murray was among the Canadian musicians who paid tribute to the folk singer’s legacy, with some saying his influence on the country’s collective identity is immeasurable.

Sharon Hampson, who came of age in Toronto’s Yorkville music scene, recalled how Lightfoot floated around the city’s venues before he became a household name in the 1960s.

“He really was a genius and so completely understated,” said Hampson, who was part of the children’s group Sharon, Lois and Bram.

She recalled a passing conversation with a stranger at the 2019 Mariposa Folk Festival, a longtime music event in Lightfoot’s hometown of Orillia, Ont. that helped launch his career and became forever linked with his legacy.

“The man said, ‘I’m from Orillia and people do not know what a kind and generous person Gordon Lightfoot was. He helped Orillia over and over and nobody needed to know about it,”” Hampson remembered by phone.

“I loved that. He didn’t need to have his name on this or that, he just wanted to do good.”

Former Barenaked Ladies member Steven Page credited Lightfoot as “the archetype of the Canadian singer-songwriter” helped by breakout success in the United States, where his album “Sundown” went to No. 1.

Page said in a phone interview that Lightfoot sculpted a model of success stateside that would be “broken, smashed and resculpted” by future generations of Canadians.

Despite finding fame outside the country, Lightfoot rarely uprooted himself from his homeland for long.

“Even though he did spend time in the United States and made records there,” Page added, “he was still deeply connected to the country, the landscape and the personality of Canada.”

Rock musician Tom Cochrane said Lightfoot’s steadfast ties to Canada came up in a conversation once with the singer.

“He said to me, ‘You know, trees grow in certain soils, and this soil has been a very powerful soil for me to grow,’” he recalled.

“Why would I leave this country? This is where I bear fruit.”

Cochrane described Lightfoot as a personal friend and inspiration who proved himself as one of Canada’s “seminal cultural artists” while being “a heck of a nice guy” all the while.

He twice honoured Lightfoot for his musical contributions – the first time was when he inducted Lightfoot into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.

At that ceremony, he compared Lightfoot to one of the Group of Seven artists, a compliment Cochrane said resonated with the musician who “saw himself genuinely as the cultural embodiment of who we are as a nation.”

Some turned to social media to express their sadness in losing the “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown” singer-songwriter.

Bryan Adams tweeted that he was “gutted to know he was gone,” adding that “the world is a lesser place without him,” while Jann Arden said Lightfoot’s songs are “woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.”

Guitarist Liona Boyd called Lightfoot a friend of nearly half a century and “one of the greatest songwriters of all time” who influenced her own work.

“Gordon was a unique and special person,” she said in an emailed statement.

He was “responsible for giving me one of my biggest breaks early in my career when I opened for him on tour in the ’70s.”

Lightfoot’s artistic drive is at least part of what kept him motivated to continue touring well into his final years.

He became known for his loyalty to Toronto’s Massey Hall, a venue that practically raised him. He first played there when he was barely a teenager and made it a frequent stop on his tours, at one point appearing at least once a year.

As he got older, Lightfoot continued to pack his schedule with dozens of concert show dates across North America and Europe, playing up until health issues sidelined him last year.

Murray said Lightfoot’s road warrior spirit became a topic of conversation well over a decade ago when they both shared a table at a Canada’s Walk of Fame ceremony. Somebody asked both musicians how much longer they would continue performing live.

“He said, ‘We’ve got to keep going, don’t we Anne?’” she remembered.

“And I went, ‘No, Gordon, I don’t think so.’ But what he wanted to do was perform until he couldn’t. He wanted to go out like Willie Nelson. He wanted to go on forever. That was his life, that’s what he loved.”

—David Friend, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Legendary folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot dies at 84