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50 Years Of Music With Gordon Lightfoot


Some people work for 50 years and decide just to take a load off. Well, Gordon Lightfoot will be busier than ever - 26-city tour to mark his 50th year writing and singing some of the most popular songs most of us have ever heard.


GORDON LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) Carefree highway, I got to see you my old flame. Carefree highway, you've seen better days.

SIMON: It is called "The 50 Years On The Carefree Highway Tour" from February to June, Clearwater, Fla., to Minneapolis - and a town called Orillia, Ontario. It can be a challenge to recall all of the hits Gordon Lightfoot has had over 50 years - "Early Morning Rain," "If You Could Read My Mind," "Sundown," "Rainy Day People" and both the best darn quasi-national anthem I've ever heard and the best Great Lake's shipwreck song ever. Gordon Lightfoot joins us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.

LIGHTFOOT: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: Now, do I have this right? Your first appearance at Massey Hall - famous venue, obviously, in Toronto - was - you were in a boy soprano contest or something? What was that?

LIGHTFOOT: I performed actually in two different years there. And the last year, I won the boys open class. And that's how I got to sing a solo in Massey Hall at the age of 13.

SIMON: Well, you sure returned a lot, didn't you, over the years?

LIGHTFOOT: Well, I kept going throughout all of that. I never believed - or knew for sure - if I would be able to make a professional life in music. But it turned out that way. And I started writing songs in high school. And eventually, I got some songs recorded by some major artists, mostly because I was out there performing, and I was working in coffee houses and lounges and people came to see me and hear my material. And the first people who - ever to hear me were Ian and Sylvia, one of our great folk revival...

SIMON: Yeah.

LIGHTFOOT: ...Artistic duos.


IAN AND SYLVIA: (Singing) In the early morning rain with a dollar in my hand. Those strong winds that blow lonely seven seas that run high.

LIGHTFOOT: Recorded two of my songs. And then it went to Peter, Paul and Mary. And the next thing I knew I had a - I had a break.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about some of your songs if we could.



LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell. Just like an old-time movie, about a ghost from a wishing well. In a castle dark or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet...

SIMON: What brought this song about?

LIGHTFOOT: Well, I was going through some emotional stress at that time right at the end of my first marriage, actually, when I wrote that one. And some of the stress that I was feeling at the time worked its way into that song. And it was what they call a bit of a sleeper, meaning that really nobody knew what the single was going to be off that album. I was quite surprised to be getting out of bed, feeding my 4-month-old son the first time I heard it on the radio.


LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) You won't read that book again because the ending's just too hard to take.

It was really thrilling to me. And it was about something that really going on in my life, which sort of made its way into the structure of that song.

SIMON: Some more music. How did you come to write this song?


LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) Bring in the workers and bring up the rails, we've got to lay down the tracks and tear up the trails. Opened her heart, let the life blood flow, got to get on our way 'cause we're moving too slow.

SIMON: Of course, this is "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." I know Canadians who say this is the real national anthem.

LIGHTFOOT: It was written for commission by Bob Jarvis, the former CBC television producer, for a television special for Canada's 100th birthday, and that's how it came about.

SIMON: I mean, that last line - what is that?- (singing) when the deep dark forests - what is that line?

LIGHTFOOT: When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.


LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.

I did a lot of canoe tripping earlier on. I was on 10 trips, and I would get the feel of the forest and the wilderness, you know, that I always knew was in my soul to begin with. I was able to - you know, to experience that and the wildlife. It's not easy. It's not an easy thing to do.


SIMON: As I've read the story, 1975 you read an article about a shipwreck in Newsweek. Is that right?

LIGHTFOOT: Well, I heard about it on CBC television the night - the evening that it actually took place.


LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

SIMON: And 29 people died, we should not forget.

LIGHTFOOT: Yes, there were 29 people on that boat. They all went with it when it went down.

SIMON: So you heard about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and when did you decide there's a song there?

LIGHTFOOT: Two weeks later, I saw an article. I forgot all about it - saw an article in Newsweek magazine, I said gosh, this is short - short shrift for such a monumental event. But what really spurred me on it was that they were spelling the name wrong. It's spelled Edmund - they used an O instead of a U, and I said that's it. I said if they're spelling the name wrong, I've got to get into this. So I was remembering back to a song, a dirge - an Irish dirge that I'd heard at 3 years old. And that was what I used to write the "Edmund Fitzgerald."


LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) Superior, they said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.

SIMON: You had medical problems a few years ago, right, 10,12 years ago?

LIGHTFOOT: Yeah, I did. I had an aortic aneurysm that almost killed me. I made my way through. Twenty-eight months later, I was back on stage from the time that it went down.

SIMON: Were you worried you wouldn't sing again after all that?

LIGHTFOOT: Absolutely. Absolutely, I was deaf for the first six months, so - but three days after I woke up, or came fully into consciousness again, one of the first things I thought about, I said let's get the guys in there. And let's go ahead and make an album. I was working on that record before I left the hospital. I've just been a very lucky person. I'm 76 years of age, you know, I've been very lucky.

SIMON: Gordon Lightfoot. He's about to go on his "Carefree Highway Tour." Twenty-six cities between now and June. He begins February 12 in Clearwater, Fla. Mr. Lightfoot, thanks so much for being with us. Good travels.

LIGHTFOOT: Love the work. Thank you for having me.


LIGHTFOOT: (Singing) If you've been down too long. Rainy day lovers don't hide love inside. They just pass it on. Rainy day lovers don't hide love inside. They just pass it on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.