Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Musical Interlude: Gordon Lightfoot

As I mentioned awhile back when I wrote about Neil Young's Harvest album, 70s folk music is one formerly popular genre that has not experienced a revival. Go to any used record store and they'll practically be giving away countless discs of Dan Fogelberg, Jim Croce, and Nicolette Larson. I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for this genre since my parents listened to it when I was a wee lad. (My earliest memories have a John Denver soundtrack.) Much of this stuff is worth forgetting, but a lot of it still holds up, in my opinion. I didn't really care for him for a long time, but in the past five years or so I've really taken a shine to Gordon Lightfoot.

I picked up a compilation CD of his on a whim soon after I moved to west Michigan after grad school. My first semester was tough, since it brought the end of a long relationship, 70 hour weeks of intense course preparation, and lots of lonely nights before I started to make some friends. I would take lots of long walks around my neighborhood, often listening to "If You Could Read My Mind," which seemed to fit my mood of feeling lost and lonesome quite well.

Of course, living in Michigan I would make sure each November to give "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" a spin. The doomed ship song is a venerable genre in folk music, and ole Gord may have penned the last one to hit the upper reaches of the charts. The Edmund Fitzgerald itself sank in 1975, and I think that its demise and this song have such power in Michigan because the disaster coincided with the economic disaster that is still causing so much misery in that state. When I hear this song I don't just lament the sailors who perished, but a state I learned to love fiercely in my short time there, a state that has suffered much too much.

On a lighter note, Lightfoot could get beyond traditional folk song themes and song structures. One thing I love about a lot of 70s pop music is that it's got groove. "Sundown"'s skanky, funky vibe is the perfect bed for Gord's tale of infidelity. A drummer laying back on the beat, funky bass, and song about a cheating lady in "faded jeans" equals seventies top 40 bliss.

I'm cheating a bit because "Canadian Railway Trilogy" comes from 1967, but I have an unabashed love of this song because I love trains and songs about trains. Taking a train from Newark to New York City each day has convinced me that it's the ideal way to travel. I also must admit that I have long held a great affection for Canada and have enjoyed visiting there on multiple occasions. This song, about the Canada Pacific Railway, was written for Canada's centennial in 1967, and is a good example of why I find Canadian nationalism less odious than its American variety. After all, the middle section of the song is a rumination on the human cost of building the railroad and the negative effects it had on the underpaid workers who made it possible. Americans are always loathe to admit the downside of their triumphs.

And just for fun, one of my favorite SCTV bits ever, which has some fun at the expense of Gord's distinctive voice.

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