from Bob Dylan: "Gordon Lightfoot, every time I hear a song of his,
like I wish it would last forever." Many of us share that feeling. I
I grew up listening to CKLW, a 50,000-watt AM station broadcasting out of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Its mighty signal easily reached my hometown in northern Ohio.
CKLW played a far more eclectic mix of songs than any U.S. station -- the usual Top 40 fare, of course, but also a lot of minor-league Detroit soul artists and a heavy concentration of Canadian content. It's where I first heard Gordon Lightfoot.
Listening to the lyrics of most songs is like turning a videotape on and then immediately hitting the pause button for two or three minutes. There's a moment in time onscreen, but nothing really happens and everything's slightly blurry. In far too many songs, it's the same way. What you see/hear is what you get. No emotional development, no thought processes.
In Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," there's no full-blown story, no big narrative. As the song starts, a relationship is dying. At the song's end, the relationship is still dying, but between beginning and end, we witness its further dissolution. And this is accomplished through nuance. The lyric ping-pongs from "if you could read my mind" to "if I could read your mind" back to "if I could read yours." In the course of the song, the singer tries to let his lover into his soul. He asks her to "read between the lines" and concludes she cannot. The curtain falls. The song is over.
It's no paradox that a single moment may still contain significant action.
Gordon's songs have the timeless quality of a troubadour's music. The
sound familiar, and yet they are intricately woven. There's a great
of step-wise motion to his melodies, not the big jumps associated with
a power ballad. The melody lines tend to wander up and down
On every level -- lyric, music, performance -- there's a depth and an honesty that explains why Gordon's songs have been recorded by so many vocalists. Ian & Sylvia and Peter, Paul & Mary were the first. Marty Robbins sang "Ribbon of Darkness" all the way to No. 1 on the country charts. Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, and Harry Belafonte have interpreted his words -- gems such as "Early Morning Rain," "For Lovin' Me," "Sundown," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
We're all in for a rare treat when Gordon plays upon the Ryman stage. His tours are infrequent. He tends to stay home, in Canada. Thankfully, last year he appeared in a concert in a PBS special that had its first broadcast this past December. A video of that show is available.
I've learned so much from Gordon Lightfoot. He's been my teacher in so many ways. And I know I'm not alone in expressing that debt of gratitude. When his performance is finally finished tonight, just like Dylan, we will be sad that it did not last forever.