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Photo by Cole Bennett

Interview with Gordon Lightfoot

Canadian musical icon and former choirboy talks about his beginnings, faith and activism in conversation at St. Paul's United in Orillia, Ont.

By Karen Hilfman Millson

Q What is your first memory of singing in front of people?

A I do remember the night. I remember I had an audience. A couple of my cousins and my uncle were there, as well as others. I was about four years old at the time, and I did indeed stand up on my grandmother’s table and belt out a song. But I don’t think it was Jesus Loves Me, as some have said. It was more risqué than that.

They all sang, all of my family. The four sisters sang as a quartet together: Aunt Lola, Aunt Babe, Aunt Laura and Jessica, my mother. They had some really good renditions. My grandmother Ethel Trill played the piano in the living room, and they sang. It was a wonderful time.

Q In those younger years, many people in Orillia encouraged you. Some of that encouragement came from here at St. Paul’s United. Can you share some of those memories?

A By the time I reached Grade 7, Ray Williams, the choir director here at St. Paul’s, already had me involved in singing in competition. I got all of my basic training right here, right where I’m sitting tonight. I stood in this very spot and sang at so many weddings. Every Christmas, I would stand up and do a Christmas tune, and at Easter I would do the same. Songs like (sings), “I come to the garden alone, While the dew fell on the roses.” Up a couple of octaves.

Q You were still fairly young when you began to write songs that have touched the hearts of people around the world. One of the early ones is the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, written for Canada’s centennial year. How did that come about?

I went down to the CBC to Bob Jarvis’s office, and he said, “Gord, I want you to write a song for a special TV show that we’re going to do on New Year’s Day, 1967. I want it to be about the Canadian railroad. Go to the library, right now, and get a book by Sir William Cornelius Van Horne.” I got the book, read the book and wrote the song.

The song was done very quickly. I went back to the CBC, where I had been a week before, walked in and sat down at Bob Jarvis’s desk. I played [the piece] with my 12-string. He said, “Gordon, I’m impressed.”

Coming from Bob Jarvis, that was something. He was one of the really good producers at CBC, an important guy. And so I said, “Fine, when do we start?” He said, “We’re going to do it next week.” They came in with a 15-piece orchestra and we went in and recorded it in two hours, and that’s the track we used on the television show.

Q Of the many songs you’ve written, there are two that you change the lyrics to slightly when you perform them now, and there’s one song you won’t sing anymore. Can you tell us about those?

A I learned a lot of things from the many women I met. One of the things was, don’t write songs that are chauvinistic. And boy, I wrote a couple at the start, like That’s What You Get for Loving Me. Oh my goodness, I’ll never write another song like that. That one taught me a lesson. It really did. Others still sing it, but I won’t anymore.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, that’s one I always treat with respect. There is a ladies’ committee in Madison, Wis., that I’ve stayed in touch with for years and years. [It includes] the captain’s wife and daughter, the daughter of a deckhand, the mother of a 21-year-old boy who was the youngest person in the crew to go down with the boat.

The part in the song about the hatch covers giving way as one of the possibilities [for the shipwreck], well, that was the job of Cheryl’s father and Ruth’s son who were deckhands. They were supposed to be the guys who were looking after the hatch covers. I felt a cringe, I felt something in my soul, because they knew that wasn’t what happened and I had no business assuming what happened.

In concert, I change the line of the song to say, “At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said, ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know you.’” No more hatch covers.

And then in the song If You Could Read My Mind, I was going through the breakup of my marriage at that time. Years later, my daughter Ingrid came up to me one night and got me to change a line in that song. She said, “Daddy, it’s not ‘the feelings that you lack,’ it’s ‘the feelings that we lack.’” And I said, “You know, you’re right. I can’t do anything about the record, but for the rest of my life I promise you I’ll say, ‘the feelings that we lack.’” Because she was clear that I was pointing at her mom, you see. She finally says, “Wasn’t it a two-way street, Daddy?”

Q You told me once you don’t like to be “preachy” about social justice (an interesting comment to make to a preacher), but you’ve worked with David Suzuki and First Nations people in British Columbia, and with Suzuki and Sting to stop a dam being built in Brazil. What about your kids? Have any of them shown an interest in social justice issues?

A My daughter Meredith is in the Occupy movement. I used to go down [to St. James Park in Toronto] to see how she was doing. When she had been there for about two months, I took her a sleeping bag one day because it was getting colder. The press were all there. The next day, my daughter and I had our picture on the front page of the Globe and Mail.

Q What about the young songwriters of today? Do you see much potential in them?

A The music of the young ones today is well produced. But it all starts with the songwriting. There are some good people out there. One of them is Justin Bieber. I listened to his album long before I knew we would both be invited to sing at the Grey Cup. I can’t find a single person
who appreciates his music unless they are 14 or 15 years old, even though the quality is there. There are some great songs.

We get lots of stuff at the office from new songwriters. I respond to just about everything that comes in, either by e-mail or phone. I like to see people encouraged like I was. It was my mother who planted the seed for me by the time I was eight, when she told me that some of the great singers we listened to all the time actually made money singing. I was that young when I started to think about a career in music.

Q You’ve had a wonderful career, but it hasn’t always been easy. You’ve had some tough times in your life. What kept you going?

A Yes, some tough times. Like the first night I sang Couchiching. It was the Friday night of a concert in Orillia, the night before I ended up in hospital for an extended stay, and I sang that kind-of-ironic last verse, “I’ll do my final number by Lake Couchiching.” That’s exactly what almost happened.

Sometimes I think I’m really, really lucky, no matter what has gone down. I can say one thing: it’s faith in God that keeps me going. I go to church a lot more than I used to. But the faith that I got, I learned right here in this church when I was a kid.

I remember the sermons, I remember the prayers, I remember the vibes. I remember the singing at Christmas and singing at New Year’s. You can’t help it — you have to have faith when you get that kind of groundwork.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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