Dylan on Lightfoot
One passage about his favorite songwriters stood out because Gordon Lightfoot seems to be getting acknowledged more in the last couple of years than the last couple of decades. Alison Krauss recorded a touching version of his 1982 song “Shadows” with Tony Rice that was released as a single and on DVD, and Lightfoot will be touring the east coast from May through July, including his first performance at NYC’s Town Hall for more than 30 years. After numerous health challenges in the early part of the past decade, and now that he’s turned 70, the attention is timely and deserved.
Bill Flanagan: You and Lightfoot go way back.
Bob Dylan: Oh yeah. Gordo’s been around as long as me.
BF: What are your favorite songs of his?
BD: “Shadows,” “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind.” I can’t think of any I don’t like.
Lightfoot has indeed been around as long as Dylan. Though influenced by Pete Seeger, fellow Canadians Ian & Sylvia and the New York folk folk scene in general, Lightfoot’s time away from that scene in Los Angeles, Canada and England from 1958 until the mid-60s meant that he earned a reputation as a songwriter first, with artists such as Ian & Sylvia and Peter, Paul and Mary having early success with his “Early Mornin’ Rain” and others. In 1965, Lightfoot signed a management contract with Albert Grossman, also Dylan and Ian & Sylvia’s manager, and his U.S. recording career was launched.
Seeing Gordon Lightfoot was my first concert experience, in, I believe, the fall of 1970. My friend Mark and I were escorted to the show at a local seminary by our 9th grade English teacher, a former Jesuit (yes, parents would allow their sons to be taken to concerts by former priests then). Lightfoot entered our canon with “If You Could Read My Mind” which we scrutinized alongside Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and their like for literary references and clues to our own baffling romantic stirrings (and, yes, 9th-grade English class at the time included folk-song lyrics as well as Robert Frost). “If You Could Read My Mind” had everything we sought: a narrator whose pain (it’s based on the break-up of Lightfoot’s first marriage) can only be expressed by projecting himself as a character in a movie or book — until the inevitable acknowledgment of real-life loss.
“But for now, love, let’s be real;
I never thought I could feel this way
And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it.
I don’t know where we went wrong,
But the feeling’s gone
And I just can’t get it back.”
I recall the concert being in a small auditorium, in the round, close enough to search their faces and follow their hands, an acoustic trio that included Lightfoot’s early guitarist Red Shea (who passed away last June). I was, and remain, indelibly marked by that show and the intimacy and honesty of Lightfoot’s songs. After too long when many associated Lightfoot with later songs on adult contemporary radio or hearing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in a History Channel doc, it feels right to see Dylan assert Lightfoot’s place in folk history.
”If You Could Read My Mind” (2006)
Ian and Sylvia with Gordon from an Ian & Sylvia reunion show in 1986