Gordon Lightfoot, the legendary Canadian folk singer-songwriter whose hits including “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” told a story of Canadian identity that was exported around the world, died Monday. He was 84.

The representative of Victoria Lord said that the musician died of natural causes in a Toronto hospital.

Considered one of the most prominent voices at Toronto’s Yorkville folk club scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot recorded 20 studio albums and wrote hundreds of songs, including “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown.”

Once described as a “rare talent” by Bob Dylan, dozens of artists have recorded his work, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Anne Murray, Jane’s Addiction and Sarah McLachlan.

Most of his songs are deeply autobiographical with lyrics that openly explore his own experiences and explore issues of Canadian national identity.

His 1975 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” described the Great Lakes freighter’s demise, and his 1966 “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” described the construction of the railroad.

“I just write songs about where I am and where I’m from,” he once said. “I take situations and write poems about them.”

Gordon Lightfoot in Concert - Ocean City, New Jersey
Gordon Lightfoot performs in concert at the Ocean City Music Pier on July 18, 2022 in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Donald Kravitz/Getty Images

Often described as a poetic storyteller, Lightfoot was well aware of his cultural influence. He took this role very seriously.

“I just enjoy being there and being part of the totem pole and doing the responsibilities that I’ve acquired over the years,” he said in a 2001 interview.

Although Lightfoot’s parents recognized his musical talent early on, he had no intention of becoming a famous balladeer.

He started singing in his church choir and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. At age 13, the soprano won a talent contest at the Kiwanis Music Festival held at Massey Hall in Toronto.

“I remember the thrill of being in front of a crowd,” Lightfoot said in a 2018 interview. “It was a stepping stone for me…”

The allure of those early days lingered, and in high school his barbershop quartet, The Collegiate Four, won a CBC talent show. He played his first guitar in 1956 and began writing songs in the following months. Perhaps drawn to his taste in music, he flunked algebra the first time. After retraining in 1957, he graduated from school.

By then, Lightfoot had already written his first major composition, “The Hula Hoop Song,” inspired by the popular children’s toy that had swept the culture. Attempts to sell the song failed, so at 18 he headed to the US to study music for a year. The trip was partially funded by money saved from a job delivering laundry to resorts around his hometown.

Midnight special
Gordon Lightfoot performs on Midnight Special in the 1970s.

Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

However, life in Hollywood did not suit, and soon Lightfoot returned to Canada. He vowed to move to Toronto to pursue his musical ambitions, taking whatever job he could, including a bank position, before landing a gig as a dancer on CBC’s “Country Hoedown.”

His first gig was at Fran’s Restaurant, a downtown family diner that matched his folk sensibilities. There he met fellow musician Ronnie Hawkins.

The singer lived with a few friends in a condemned building in Yorkville, then a bohemian neighborhood where future stars, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, learned their trade in smoke-filled clubs.

Lightfoot made his popular radio debut with the single “(Remember Me) I’m the One” in 1962, which led to a number of hits and partnerships with other local musicians. When he began performing at the Mariposa Folk Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ont., that same year, Lightfoot developed a relationship that made him the festival’s most loyal returning performer.

By 1964, he was garnering positive reviews across the city, and audiences began to gather in larger numbers. By the following year, Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin'” had become a hit in Canada, helping to spread his name across the US.

A couple of covers by other artists didn’t hurt either. Marty Robbins’ recording of “Ribbon of Darkness” reached #1 in the US charts in 1965, while Peter, Paul & Mary took Lightfoot’s “For Lovin’ Me” into the US Top 30. he wanted it recorded, has since been covered by hundreds of other musicians.

Justin Bieber performs at the CFL's 100th Gray Cup Halftime Show
Gordon Lightfoot during the halftime show at the 100th CFL Gray Cup at Rogers Center on November 25, 2012 in Toronto, Canada.

George Pimentel

That summer, Lightfoot performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the same year Dylan shocked audiences when he shed his folk persona to play electric guitar.

When the folk music boom ended in the late 1960s, Lightfoot was already making his transition to pop music with ease.

In 1971, he made his first Billboard chart appearance with “If You Could Read My Mind.” It reached #5 and has since spawned numerous covers.

Lightfoot’s popularity peaked in the mid-1970s when his single and album “Sundown” topped the Billboard charts, the first and only time he was able to do so.

Lightfoot won 12 Juno Awards during his career, including one in 1970, when it was named a Golden Leaf.

In 1986, he was inducted into the Canadian Recording Industry Hall of Fame, now the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He received the Governor General’s Award in 1997 and was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.


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