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The Minstrel of the Dawn is Gone
A brief reflection on the music of Gordon Lightfoot
What stands out most about Gordon Lightfoot is the memorability of his tunes. Last night I went to bed with his song “Saturday Clothes” playing in my head, and this morning I woke up hearing “Poor Little Allison” looping through my memory cells. I suppose it’s my own fault, as I’ve been listening to some of his albums since learning of his passing on May 1st. I used to perform some of his songs (when I used to perform), like “I’m Not Supposed to Care,” “Your Love’s Return,” and “Too Late For Praying.” I particularly remember playing the latter at a New Year’s Eve service at a Presbyterian church in my home town sometime in the ‘70s, and I encourage anyone of an environmental bent to check it out.
I’ve always loved Lightfoot’s music, and often played some of it with my folk music buddy, Bob. In our private jam sessions and his public performances, Bob would take a spin through “Early Morning Rain,” that Lightfoot classic recorded by the artist himself and several others (even Elvis, I’ve recently learned), and reflecting the alienation of so many members of Lightfoot’s generation. Regardless of what socio-economic class they came from, they idolized the anti-hero who was poor and drunk and down on his luck like the song’s narrator. You can almost see him standing just outside the airport wearing a wrinkled flannel shirt, faded denim jeans, and scuffed up work boots, in the rain of course, realizing he can’t afford an airline ticket to get home to see his loved one (and probably couldn’t afford an umbrella either). Alienation was practically its own genre back then, and I’m sure it made some music and film producers, and no doubt an entertainer or two, very rich.
As much as I loved Lightfoot’s songs, his sweet-as-honey tenor voice, and the bright twang of his 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars, he was never the main event for me. In the late ‘60s, that honor belonged to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Simon & Garfunkel, all of whom and many more I’ve been blessed to see in concert (if you count an early 2000s version of Paul McCartney and his backup band performing Beatles tunes as having seen the Fab Four). I saw Lightfoot in concert in a smallish theater in Boston in the 1980s and left disappointed. It wasn’t that he didn’t sound great; he absolutely did. But the renditions of his songs that he performed that night seemed note-for-note identical with the recorded versions. Except for the quality of the concert venue’s PA system, which no doubt was better than my home stereo, I could detect no difference between the live versions and the studio productions.
Contrast that experience with a Dylan concert, where it could take several minutes and a finely tuned ear to grasp that what you were listening to was “Mr. Tambourine Man” performed in some fashion that bore little resemblance to the original except for the lyrics, which themselves were hard to make out from Dylan’s croaking and because he had attached them to a completely different tempo and meter. Lightfoot’s stage presence was also different from some of the other performers’, who would talk to their audiences, explaining the genesis of their songs, or joking or commenting on life on the road or world affairs. At the concert I attended, Lightfoot did none of that, but just played his guitars and sang. If you came to hear him replicate the vinyl, you left satisfied. If you came to enjoy a more personal connection between artist and audience or a more creative performance, you did not. No one had to tell old Gord to shut up and sing. He had mastered that skill.
But still, those songs . . . .
As I type this now, I hear “Ordinary Man” playing in the imaginary background. I’ll probably listen to some of Lightfoot’s albums again today and later discover that another of his tunes has taken over my mental soundtrack. I thought of picking up my guitar and recording and posting on YouTube one of his songs, like I did with a John Prine tune (“Hello in There”) when Prine died of Covid at the beginning of the pandemic. I had seen Prine in concert too, probably as a warm-up act to someone else, back in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. At that show, I was bowled over by his line in “Sam Stone” about a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran— “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” — deeply tragic but with a turn of phrase that was comically brilliant (and which, therefore, had the effect of underscoring the sadness of it all), like so much of Prine’s work. For all his formidable lyrical talents, I can’t quite picture the more genteel Lightfoot coming up with a phrase so raw and sardonic. Anyway, although I think I can do justice to some of Prine’s tunes, I know I can’t match Lightfoot’s perfect performances of his own beautiful songs. He had that voice, those guitar licks, and the supporting instrumentation that I can’t touch, let alone improve on.
I’ll close by mentioning that I just finished watching a documentary about Lightfoot that is streaming on Amazon Prime. I was struck by his comments there about his song “For Lovin’ Me.” It’s a bitter, nasty tune, addressed to a lover the speaker is leaving. I can only wonder whether it was inspired by Dylan’s song of the same type, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” written one year earlier, or whether it inspired Dylan’s more lyrically complex and even nastier cut, “Positively 4th Street,” that came out one year later. What struck me in the documentary was that Lightfoot said he hated “For Lovin’ Me” and no longer played it. Maybe he arrived at that sentiment on his own, or maybe someone close to him implored him to let the song go. Either way, his after-the-fact disapproval of one of his own popular but uncharacteristically hateful tunes reveals a self-reflective nature that speaks well of the late folksinger. It’s further evidence if any were needed that we’ve lost another good one.
The minstrel of the dawn is gone
I hope he’ll call before too long
And if you meet him you must be
The victim of his minstrelsy
He'll sing for you a song
The minstrel of the dawn
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