Gordon Lightfoot Album Reviews

By John A. McCurdy

In March 1966, music industry legend Albert Grossman – then managing the careers of rising stars Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan – engineered United Artists’ release of Gordon Lightfoot’s first LP, Lightfoot! Recorded in New York in November 1964, the album’s fourteen tracks captured, with stark and brooding simplicity, Lightfoot’s signature sound – rich as oak, warm as spring sunshine, quietly illuminating, self-effacing.

The opening track, ‘Rich Man’s Spiritual’ – much like the other thirteen songs – presents a caricature of Lightfoot, consumed by the idea that he can buy his way into heaven if he puts himself in the way of a little blues – just enough, that is, to establish a modicum of credibility with the Lord. “Gonna buy me a poor man’s trouble / Yes and Lord to lead me home,” he sings, “And when I get my trouble and woe / Then homeward I will go / I’m gonna get a little trouble and woe to lead me home.” Never suspecting that the blues might be real, Lightfoot’s young man runs up against some truly unwanted suffering.

‘Long River,’ the album’s second track, shows how the first certainty lost is the constancy of young love when, after describing an idyllic country home he laments: “And I’d give it all to you / If her love were true / Where the long river flows / By my window.” In ‘The Way I Feel’ – the haunting track that follows – Lightfoot’s young man becomes a “tall oak tree / Alone and crying” – a green-bowed home for his lover, imagined as a young robin outgrowing her nest and flying away. The deep sense of loss in ‘The Way I Feel’ looks forward in time to Lightfoot’s 1976 masterwork, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’

In ‘For Lovin’ Me,’ Lightfoot’s blistering sketch of disillusioned young man turned callous womanizer, his character boasts to a new lover already on the outs: “I’ve had a hundred more like you / So don’t be blue / I’ll have a thousand before I’m through” - lost, like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in hyper-masculine conquest fantasies. Lightfoot’s reverent interpretation of Ewan McColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ follows, however, as womanizer turns troubadour, singing a solemn ode the “the first time.”

From this point the feet of Lightfoot’s Rich Man begin to touch the earth, his troubadour self now humble enough to accept, and even celebrate, nature’s cycles of life and death through a sweet rendition of Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes.’ ‘Early Mornin’ Rain’ follows, arguably the album’s most terrestrial track and Lightfoot’s greatest composition. With an aching in his heart and his “pockets full of sand,” Lightfoot’s troubadour, lying drunk in a patch of long grasses somewhere in sunny California, watches helplessly as commercial jets ascend “far above the clouds,” to a netherworld where the comforts of landscape give way to sun-bright weightlessness. “You can’t jump a jet plane,” goes the songs refrain, “Like you can a freight train / So I’d best be on my way / In the early mornin’ rain.”*

Later, when it seems a wayward soul will once again tell a heartbroken lover, “That’s what you get for lovin’ me,” along comes Lightfoot’s inspired interpretation of ‘Pride of Man,’ a protest ballad marked by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Singing “Can’t you see the flash of fire / Ten times brighter than the day,” Lightfoot warns Prometheus to “Turn around / Go back down / Back the way you came” - to forfeit stealing fire from the gods.

Concluding that “only God can lead the people back into the earth again,” Lightfoot moves into “Ribbon of Darkness,” where nuclear apocalypse gives way to self-revelation, his troubadour grieving lost love again, and going – as Neil Young would later put it – “Out of the blue / And into the black.” Too late for forgiveness, and stung by a dose of his own callous betrayal in ‘Oh, Linda,’ the album’s second last track, the final cut, ‘Peaceful Waters,’ offers up a blessing for “mankind” as Lightfoot trades the pain of love for the chalice of spiritual faith. His Rich Man comes full circle, the blues leaving a healthy sense of unease at the enormous difficulty of loving well.

* Many years later Lightfoot would reveal that the song had been written while caring for his first newborn. See the liner notes to the Lightfoot Songbook compilation (Rhino-Atlantic, 1999).

Originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of Between the Lines, McMaster University’s undergraduate humanities quarterly.


by Wayne Francis

        It was the fall of 1964.  Lightfoot enters a downtown New York recording studio on a gloomy evening to begin work on his debut album.  They choose a small room in the studio to record, thinking that the smaller room might capture the intimacy of Gordon accompanied only by two guitars and bass.
        Rich Man's Spiritual is the first tune laid down on that night.  It is the type of song Lightfoot enjoyed playing live in those days, going back to his days as one half of the Two Tones, when they would close their sets with Children Go Where I Send Thee, the traditional folk spiritual. Lightfoot had also written other songs in that vein such as Where Are All The Martyred Children, but Rich Man's Sprirtual was clearly his best song of that genre.
        Then it was Long River, with Bruce Langhorne, the highly sought after session guitarist of that era, weaving beautifully with Lightfoot's guitar.  This song would be the first on record to document Lightfoot's fascination with the wild and untamed beauty and solitude that was Canada.  And in the last verse we find the singer telling us that he'd "give it all to you, if her love were true".  Ah yes, love and nature.  A theme Lightfoot would return to many times in the coming decades, with startlingly beautiful results!
        The Way I Feel with its gentle folk guitar arrangement cradling the tender lyrics of lost love and lonliness. That gloomy New York night could have easily provided a perfect backdrop for Lightfoot to convey every ounce of sadness that this song suggests.
        Then into For Lovin' Me.  By this time For Lovin' Me had already been recorded by Ian & Sylvia and made a hit by Peter, Paul and Mary.  Now Lightfoot gives us the song in it's definitive, driving form.  While the other recordings of the song by other artists gave the song a delicate interpretation, Lightfoot gives us a harder edged delivery, in a style he continues to play the song in right up to the present.
        The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.  A very nice cover of the Ewan McColl classic that later became a hit for Roberta Flack.  Lightfoot's rendidtion is set apart by his stunning vocal.
        Phil Ochs' Changes is next.  Lightfoot and Ochs were friends and the already established Ochs was a strong Lightfoot supporter. Ochs wrote Changes while in Toronto and Lightfoot was one of the first to hear and record the song.  Check out the article Ochs wrote about Lightfoot in 1965 in Broadside magazine.  The article is in the FAQ files.
        And then Early Morning Rain!  What more can be said about this song that hasn't already been said?  Covered by the likes of Dylan and Presley, it was written in 1964, but Lightfoot drew upon an experience some six years earlier when he was studying music in Los Angeles in 1958 and he found himself at LAX one early morning, more than a little homesick.
        Another tale of bittersweet longing, but in a much more playful style, Steel Rail Blues.  Lightfoot early on displayed a restlessness in his writing where he was either trying to get back to home and loved ones, or to escape the same.  This tension between these two basic longings give much of Lightfoot's writing that universal appeal, whereby so many of us can relate in a very direct way.
        On Sixteen Miles, Lightfoot showcases a beautifully, effortless melody that on the surface seems so simple, yet it is deceptively discrete.  This song finds Lightfoot seeking comfort in the wilderness from "an old love", not unlike Long River and although he vows he "won't remember her at all", we realize that the urge to return will again resurface, setting up the inevitable attempt to reconcile or move on, and another song.
        Lightfoot supposedly wrote I'm Not Sayin' while watching a hockey game on TV.  A strong driving melody, with some great guitar licks courtesy of David Rea that Red Shea and Terry Clements would continue to embellish for many years.  The subject matter and sentiment here is not far removed from For Lovin' Me.
        Another cover, this time Hamilton Camp's apocalyptic, Pride Of Man.  Lightfoot would continue to perform this song live into the mid 70's.
        For every For Lovin' Me or I'm Not Sayin' there must be a Ribbon Of Darkness.  Lightfoot's stance in the former songs is softened by his ackowledgement in songs like Ribbon Of Darkness of the true nature of relationships and the peril and hurt that are the consequence.  Lightfoot also demonstrates some fine whistling in this song that would resurface on later songs like Brave Mountaineers and Ghosts Of Cape Horn.  Lightfoot often would whistle on many of his early demo recordings to provide an instrumental break when he was playing only guitar without accompaniment.
        Oh, Linda was and is a distinct recording in Lightfoot's long career.  Backed only by an interesting bass guitar line, Lightfoot delivers a knock out vocal.
        The album closes with the hopeful Peaceful Waters.  It comes across as an almost folk music hymn.  "May this world find a resting place, where peaceful waters flow."
        Lightfoot! was really Lightfoot's only true folk album, with the acoustic guitars played by David Rea and Bruce Langhorne, two of the best folk music stylists of the day, along with Lightfoot's own folk influenced playing and last, but certainly not least, the superb acoustic bass throughout the album, played by Bill Lee (father of film director, Spike Lee).  By his next album more Nashville influences are creeping into the sound, and although there would always be a folk aspect to Lightfoot's music, in my opinion, his first album is his purest folk effort.  Lightfoot would comment in the early 80's that the folk label that persisted with him throughout his career was causing his records, which were much more rock natured by that time, to miss out on radio because programmers still had him pegged as a strictly folk artist.
        Lightfoot!, although recorded in late 1964, was not released until January of 1966.  The time in between was spent by his management, securing a satisfactory record deal. Although he signed with United Artists, a truly satisfactory record deal would not come about until five albums later, when he made the historic one million dollar signing with Warner Brothers in 1970, the company he has remained with to this day.