Canadian Singer/Songwriter Gordon Lightfoot is known world-wide for his folk/rock masterpieces. The 74 year old troubadour has released twenty studio albums and fourteen compilation (or “best of”) collections. Lightfoot is known as one of Canada’s greatest songwriters. His influence on music and songwriting is unquestionable. But Lightfoot’s real strength lies in his lyrics. What are the best Gordon Lightfoot lyrics and where are these songs found?
Gordon Lightfoot’s distinguished career spans from 1966, when he released his first album Lightfoot!, to the present day. His most recent album is the 2004 collection entitled Harmony. In between these releases is a staggering catalogue of well-over a hundred songs. For our first article in this series highlighting the best Gordon Lightfoot lyrics we have chosen two of his earlier hits: “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown”.
The 1970’s hit “If You Could Read My Mind” first appeared on Lightfoot’s Sit Down Young Stranger. The song reached number one on the Canadian charts and number five on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in 1971. The lyrics tell the tale of a love triangle where the protagonist is caught between his present lover and his desire for another. Years later Lightfoot would reveal the song was inspired by his pending divorce. However, we do not have to know the back-story to properly interpret this piece. Lightfoot’s lyrics reveal the painful truth: “I’d walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three-way script. Enter number two. A movie queen who plays the scene of bringing all the good things out in me.” Lightfoot later concludes this verse with “I never thought I could act this way and I have to say that I just don’t get it. I don’t know where things went wrong but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.”
While other songwriters of the time were penning lyrics with deep, personal meanings expressed through flowery words, Gordon Lightfoot was telling us “the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back” in plain, simple language. In ten short words he was able to convey the multitude of feelings one has when finally realizing the feelings they once had for someone have disappeared, never to return.
In 1974 Lightfoot’ song “Sundown” (from the album of the same name) reached #1 on both the Canadian and American charts. It was later rumored this chart-topper was inspired by Gordon’s relationship with Cathy Smith (who was later associated with John Belushi.) Lightfoot once said Smith was “the one woman in my life who most hurt me.” While it is not a quantum leap to believe “Sundown” may have been inspired by this relationship the lyrics speak for any man who has been heart-broken at the hands of a woman: “I can picture every move that a man can make, getting lost in her lovin’ is your first mistake.” And of course for those who choose to drown their sorrows this line perfectly sums up the feeling: “Sometimes I think it’s a shame when I get feeling better when I’m feeling no pain.” Once again Lightfoot cuts to the bone with simple language and few words.
The beauty of Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics is found in their simplicity and Gordon’s innate ability to use few words to express his deepest, personal feelings. This is the true secret to songwriting. There are many examples in Lightfoot’s song catalogue which we will cover in subsequent articles. But there is no better place to start than “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown”.