Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot dies, age 84

Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian folk-pop icon, who died aged 84 on 1 May 2023
(Image credit: Mark Horton/Getty Images)

The Canadian folk-pop icon Gordon Lightfoot, whose songwriting won the affections of Bob Dylan and gave the world indelible tracks such as If You Could Read My Mind, has died aged 84. 

Lightfoot passed away on Monday 1 May in hospital in Toronto. A generational talent, and by many people’s reckoning Canada’s greatest ever songwriter, he leaves behind a formidable legacy, and a catalogue of songs that have been engrained in popular culture, whether performed by Lightfoot himself or the many artists who covered him. And not just any artists. The greats covered Lightfoot: Elvis, Cash, Dylan...

Chief among Lightfoot’s gifts as a songwriter was to pare storytelling down to its very essence. It was observational and human. Lightfoot was not one to overcomplicate an arrangement lest he obscure its message or deflate its emotional currency. All you needed was an acoustic guitar and a voice – though over the years he would help expand folk's form. 

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2019, he said people loved covering his songs because they were simple. The crowd loved his songs because they had a sense of motion.

“We’ve got songs that register well with the crowd, like Read My Mind and Beautiful and Don Quixote,” he said. “They’re all tunes that just move along and have a forward momentum, which is what I look for in my writing. Forward momentum.”

One chord in front of the other. It sounds so simple but never is. Lightfoot had moved to California to study jazz but once he moved back over the border at the dawn of the '60s he really turned his attention to songwriting. There times were a-changing. There was a folk circuit to hit. Lightfoot’s songs would find soon find an audience. 

Early singles scored him local airplay and a reputation. There was something back-to-front about Lightfoot’s early career, where he would write a song like Early Mornin’ Rain only for Ian & Sylvia and Peter, Paul and Mary to score hits with it first. 

Marty Robbins was another who availed himself of Lightfoot’s songwriting talent, scoring a 1965 number one single in the US Country chart with Ribbon Of Darkness. These tracks later appearing on Lightfoot’s full-length debut, Lightfoot! (1966). But this was often the way of it with folk music back then. The elemental nature of Lightfoot’s writing would make sense no matter who was performing them. 

With Albert Grossman managing him, Lightfoot soon became established in the cresting folk scene of the mid-60s, releasing four albums though United Artists, but it wasn’t until the following decade where he would find a wider audience. Lightfoot was prolific. 

His output in the first half of the ‘70s was prodigious: Sit Down Young Stranger (1970), Summer Side Of Life (1971), Don Quixote (1972), Old Dan’s Records (1972), Sundown (1974), Cold On The Shoulder (1975). The songs kept coming. 

In 1976, he would demonstrate a keen gift for transmuting real life tragedy into immortal verse with The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald. He would write about literature, the Canadian landscape, his own life, and he would make it universal, adding elements of country and bluegrass.

Lightfoot was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986, the Canadian Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001, and as one of Canada’s most-cherished artists he has a host of civilian honours, too. 

He had health issues but the forward momentum that served his songwriting lent him an air of indefatigability. Aged 80, hospitalised with pneumonia with a tour fast approaching, he checked himself out lest he cancel any dates. 

His life was celebrated in Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s 2019 documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind. Bryan Adams, a friend of Lightfoot’s was among the first of Canada’s musical royalty to pay tribute to Lightfoot, writing on Instagram that “the world is a lesser place” for his passing.

“Once in a blue moon you get to work and hang out with one of the people you admired when you were growing up,” wrote Adams. “I was lucky enough to say Gordon was my friend and I’m gutted to know he’s gone. The world is a lesser place without him. I know I speak for all Canadians when I say: thank you for the songs Gordon Lightfoot. Bless your sweet songwriting heart, RIP dear friend.”

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.