by Akim Reinhardt
I can’t sing. Or so I always thought. A notorious karaoke warbler, I would sometimes pick a country tune, preferably Hank Williams, so that when my voice cracked, I could pretend I was yodeling. Then one night, I stepped up to the bar’s microphone and sang a Gordon Lightfoot song.
I wasn’t terrible. For once. Why? It turns out that most pop songs are for tenors, and I’m a baritone with a range similar to Dean Martin and Fats Domino, and even Lou Rawls and Johnny Cash if they don’t drift too low, but especially Gordon Lightfoot. No, I still can’t sing particularly well. But thanks to crooning one by Gord, I know which songs won’t make me croak and quaver.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
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
Lightfoot did meticulous research while writing “The Wreck of the Edumund Fitzgerald.” For example, on its final, ill-fated trip, the Edmund Fitzgerald did in fact leave a factory in Wisconsin headed for Cleveland, and carried 26,000 tons of iron. Later, he even made small changes to the lyrics in live performances as new facts about the ship’s sinking eventually came to light. But his research wasn’t perfect. “Chippewa” is a French/English corruption of “Ojibwe.” He got closer on the Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe Language) name for what Anglo settlers call Lake Superior: Gichigame.
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’?
When I was a about 10 years old, a kid in my school told me his dad wrote the “Feelin’ 7-Up” song for TV commercials. I still have no idea if that was true. However, Gordon Lightfoot did actually write, arrange, and produce advertising jingles after moving to Los Angeles to study music at age 19. He also sang on other people’s demos. However, instead of trying to punch through the LA music business, he returned to Canada in 1960 and threw himself into Toronto’s burgeoning folk scene. Some of his singles charted back home, and he signed on with legendary agent Albert Grossman, who also represented Bob Dylan, among others.
Early on, Lightfoot’s early international success was as a songwriter. Luminaries ranging from Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte to Johnny Cash and the Clancy Brothers recorded his songs. Marty Robbins had a #1 Country hit with “Ribbon of Darkness.” Bob Dylan sang his “Early Morning Rain” five years after Lightfoot covered Dylan’s “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” But Lightfoot’s big breakthrough in the States as a performer came in 1971 with “If you Could Read My Mind,” a brutally honest and poetically rich account of his first marriage unraveling. Who’s fault was it? Maybe both of them. Maybe more his. Maybe no one’s. Their marital demise wasn’t Shakespearean; it was more modern and more pedestrian than that. It was an old time movie. It was a paperback novel. She couldn’t see him. He was a failed hero. She didn’t bring out all the good things in him. He never thought he could act this way. Years later, when his daughter said she thought one line in particular unfairly blamed her mother, Lightfoot changed it. A “you” to a “we.” And he sang it that way for the rest of his life.
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
T’was the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
Often attributed to Mark Twain, “Write what you know” has been popular literary advice for over a century. But what does anyone really know? To know even oneself is not easy, thus the shrinks and the priests and the bartenders quietly listening and nodding. “Know thyself,” Pausanias tells us, was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Is it a command or merely an urging? Can you even do it? Do you need the Gods’ help?
There’s a whole world around you, made up of everything and full of other people you’ll never know. What does any of it mean? Can you really know another person’s story? Can their eyes glisten and tear if you’ve never met them? Can you even know yourself?
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in,
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
During the late 1990s, while volunteering at Nebraska State Penitentiary, I met a former Black Panther named Mondo We Langa. He’d been inside almost 20 years at that point, on charges that a prison official told me were probably bogus. I’d see him on Thursday afternoons, and he sometimes requested a Bob Dylan song for my Friday morning radio show. He no longer remembered the title “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but just called it that Mr. Jones song. I always played it whenever he asked.
Dylan, as it turns out, liked Gordon Lightfoot a lot more than I like Dylan. He’s publicly praised Lightfoot many times, whereas I’ve been tired of Dylan since my twenties. I do recognize his brilliance. “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones” is a wonderful critique. Dylan was also a genius for chords and melody. He clearly understood the importance of good production values. And he is very good at rhyming a narration; he can tell a story in time, verse after verse. But I find his protest songs derivative. And while his rambling stoner lyrics were phenomenally (that is the right word) influential on rock and pop music, they tend to bore me. I often find his imagery to be banal, contrived, or even strained. However, my big complaint is that he never (at least not that I’m aware of) wrote lyrics that really open up deep insights into the human condition or touch me in some way.
He’s never made me laugh, he’s never made me cry.
That’s not to say Gordon Lightfoot’s better than Dylan. I think Lightfoot’s very inconsistent, his work sometimes drifting towards the saccharine. But on a few occasions when he put it all together, he was damn near perfect. He perceived something about the ultimate human connection: vulnerability. He could confess his own or imagine others’ because he seemed to understand that all vulnerability, whether yours, mine, or anyone else’s, is largely the same thing. Being vulnerable is what truly enjoins us.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters
Unlike Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Anka of his own generation, or Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Justin Bieber of later generations, Gordon Lightfoot didn’t become a global superstar by leaving Canada behind. Aside from that one brief foray to Los Angles over sixty years ago, Canada remained his home. When touring or recording in the United States, he typically visited on a H1-B visa.
Despite being based in Canada, he became a star in the United States, knocking out 20 studio albums, five of which went either gold or platinum. Fifteen songs charted from 1962–1986. His album Sundown went to number 1 in 1974, as did the eponymous single. But outside of Canada, he was most popular in the Great Lakes border region, where his music got heavier radio play, and Gord’s Gold was to that region what Hank Williams’ 24 Greatest Hits was to the South: you could be sure at least one of your friends’ parents owned it.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered
“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald originally appeared on the album Summertime Dream. The December, 1975 recording session was nearly finished and Lightfoot needed one more song to round out the record. Some filler. He told his band that he had this song he’d recently written. It was a simple, double-time waltz, mostly four chords over and over (Bsus2, F# minor, A major, E major). A lotta words, but he’d take care of that.
He laid it out for them and they recorded the backing track on the spot, in one take. Later that evening, also in one take, Pee Wee Charles and Terry Clements added the electric and steel guitars that wail like the west wind. Lightfoot then cleared the studio, turned off the lights, and added the vocals while reading from his handwritten lyrics.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ‘til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early
When Gordon Lightfoot died, the Mariner’s Church in Detroit chimed its bell 30 times.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com