Gordon Lightfoot blazed a trail for the folk-pop genre in the 1960s and has scored several chart topping hits ever since. His songs have been performed by greats such as Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. In his native Canada, he has been decorated with the highest civilian honors, including the Governor’s General Award and the Companion to the Order of Canada. Last year Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. At age 74, after 20 albums and having overcome several health issues, Lightfoot continues to tour. In this interview he talks about his insatiable zeal for moving forward after “50 years on the carefree highway.”
IJ: You released a live album last year. How did it come together?
GL: It was supposed to have been done posthumously but we decided to put it out now to avoid any confusion. I picked our best takes from three years worth of shows at Massey Hall. It’s all live takes, there is nothing remixed. We could have made it sound like a studio recording but it’s the raw mix and I like it. The record’s got a lot of good performances, the best performances I could find of 18 concerts. It’s great for the fans.
IJ: What do you love about Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall?
GL: It becomes a passion after a while. The first time you do Massey Hall, it’s a stepping stone of considerable proportions. The new becomes old after a while and it feels like home. Even when new halls are built I want to stick to the old place for loyalty reasons. It hasn’t been torn down yet and that’s with my assistance. I really wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.
IJ: Your career is filled with honors and awards, but last year you were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. What was that like?
GL: That was a very important one for me. It was a most interesting experience. I got to play at the event with two of my musicians. We did a nice job. There were others involved, Stevie Nicks and Kenny Rogers were there. I was only in New York for eight hours. I had to leave because I was on tour. It was actually quite thrilling. About halfway through “If You Could Read My Mind” I meekly tripped over my guitar cable. After that I headed to the podium to get my award, then I went back to the table and sat down. Next thing you know I was on a Leer jet to play a show in Ottawa the next night. I was in and out of New York in time for dinner. Those moments you never quite forget.
IJ: You’ve been credited for defining folk pop, what does that mean to you? What did it mean at the time?
GL: In agent’s lingo it’s called adult contemporary. It’s like middle of the road, based on folk music during the revival in the 1960s, a period of time when a lot of people played capo music on the banjo, like bluegrass. Then it went from capo music to folk. Some people got into it and some didn’t. I did. And I stayed with it. All of a sudden I had two or three hits and I was stuck with it. But I enjoyed the style. It’s good for my register.
IJ: You have had some serious health issues, like in 2006 when you suffered a stroke on stage and lost the use of some of your fingers for a time as a result. That must of have been pretty scary.
GL: Oh yeah, my right hand stopped working. We made it through the evening but it was just a lot of body language and fingering chords with my left hand. But my whole right hand went limp and I didn’t know what it was. I’m a very lucky man. After six months I was back to 93 percent usage of my right hand. I kept working on it and got that up to 98 percent after two years and that’s as good as it’s gonna get.
IJ: How is your health now?
GL: It’s fine now. I don’t think about that stuff. Even when I was in a coma. I just keep on moving. I keep moving forward in my mind. I enjoy the work so much and the people really do like us. We play in strange keys and we’re not getting any younger, but by golly we’re still getting a crowd.