Yesterday, Gordon Lightfoot, an absolute legend of Canadian music, passed away and the entire country, led by a parade of musicians influenced by his work, is in mourning.
“It is with profound sadness that we confirm that Gordon Meredith Lightfoot has passed away. Gordon died peacefully on Monday, May 1, 2023 at 730 p.m. at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He died of natural causes. He was 84 years old,” read the official statement from the Lightfoot family. “He is survived by his wife Kim Hasse, six children — Fred, Ingrid, Eric, Galen, Miles and Meredith, as well as several grandchildren.”
StreetsofToronto.com spoke to Lightfoot over a decade ago, when the legend was about to make yet another appearance at his home-away-from-home Massey Hall. Here is an excerpt:
Born in Orillia in 1938, Lightfoot started working in his dad’s dry cleaning plant when he was 14.
“I wanted to go to work,” he says. “When I turned 16, I started driving a truck and worked all through high school.”
It was around this time that he “started to get the bug” to write songs. His first song was about the Hula Hoop fad. He took the song to BMI Music.
“[It] was the place to go here in Toronto, down on Gould Street,” Lightfoot recalls. “William Harold Moon and Bailey Bird said, ‘Leave your name with the receptionist and we’ll call you.’ They were interested because it was a topical song.”
Many of his songs that would follow adhered to a topical style, and his music was often influenced by actual events.
In 1967, he was commissioned by the CBC to write “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” for their Centennial celebrations.
“I learned songs like a sponge at the beginning,” he says. “I wanted to get to the point where I could do all my songs like Bob Dylan does.” (Dylan would also later cite Lightfoot as one of his favourite artists.)
Part of Toronto’s fabled folk scene of the 1960s, Lightfoot began performing at the Riverboat, a coffee shop in Yorkville.
He held his own beside other musical greats, including Ian and Sylvia, who first heard him play at Steele’s Tavern on Yonge Street, as well as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Al Cromwell and the Sparrows (later Steppenwolf).
Lightfoot remembers them all: “A lot of those people disappeared, and they were really good,” he says, solemnly.
Did he realize how influential he and his contemporaries would become?
“You really wonder, but you can’t take the dream away. Keep plugging, keep trying, see if something gives. I was lucky.”
Since his debut, Lightfoot has received 16 Juno Awards and has been nominated for five Grammys. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. This past June, he was also inducted the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in New York City.
In 1998 he received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Since his passing, tributes have poured in from all corners including a veritable who’s-who of artists from around the world.
Rest in peace, Gordon Lightfoot. pic.twitter.com/DY6ZpuXWi7
— Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) May 2, 2023
Gordon Lightfoot has died. He was a great songwriter and a wonderful performer. Sundown, you better take care/If I catch you creepin’ ’round my back stairs.”
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) May 2, 2023
In 2019, I recorded a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting “If You Could Read My Mind” for my Runaway Horses 30th Anniversary box set. https://t.co/ACT4InvEJt
It’s one of my favorite songs.
RIP #gordonlightfoot pic.twitter.com/s6cRWFh9Jx
— Belinda Carlisle 💙 (@belindacarlisle) May 2, 2023
The world lost one of its great storytellers yesterday. Canada lost part of itself. And I lost a hero. Gordon Lightfoot, may you rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/RgafvNdBrd
— Kiefer Sutherland (@RealKiefer) May 2, 2023
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also issued a statement on behalf all Canadians speaking to the profound impact Lightfoot and his music had on the country.
“Mr. Lightfoot gave us so many special moments over the years. With a career that spanned over half a century, Mr. Lightfoot‘s music told stories that captured the Canadian spirit, none more so than his iconic Canadian Railroad Trilogy, which will forever be a part of our country’s musical heritage,” Trudeau wrote, in part.
“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I express our deepest sympathies to Gordon‘s family, friends, and his many, many fans. His legacy will live on in the dynamic Canadian soundscape he helped to shape.”
Back in 2012, when we asked what role his music ultimately plays in the shaping of a Canadian identity, he replied in his typical modest manner.
“The best things I can do is just stay here, in Canada, and be a part of this country and represent it well whenever I go abroad. And be proud,” he said.
As someone who spent the better part of his life making music in Toronto from Yorkville in the ’60s through to his regular appearances at Massey Hall as well as his home in North Toronto, it is essential to find a fitting way to honour Lightfoot’s contribution to the city.
He deserves all the accolades.
RIP Gordon Lightfoot.