We were lucky to share the life and times of Gordon Lightfoot

Last updated on May 04, 23

Posted on May 04, 23

2 min read

When Canadian farm income forecasts dropped 300 per cent in 2000 and a benefit concert was planned in Toronto to raise money for beleaguered farmers, who was one of the first to lend their name to the cause – and one of the biggest draws?

Gordon Lightfoot.

Almost every Canadian knows Lightfoot died Monday in Toronto at age 84. And while there’s a tendency to overstate the significance of someone’s life once they’re gone, there’s no question Lightfoot, an Orillia native, had a role in bridging the rural-urban divide here, and helping “city people” have a bit more empathy for those outside their limits.

It wasn’t so much what Lightfoot said that opened people’s eyes. In fact, he often seemed uncomfortable and even awkward in media interviews. I saw him three times, including once in Kitchener, and with all due respect, his stage patter was limited and shallow.

But his authenticity and his music carved out an unmistakable niche. Lightfoot was present when the world was starting to realize country music was about more than whisky benders, lost dogs and broken hearts.

Granted, you could find some elements of those topics in his material.

However, you also found an immediate accessibility in his easy-on-the-ears music and irresistible depth in his lyrics.

And that style! Who didn’t want to be as country-cool as Gordon Lightfoot? Being a fan meant learning about some rural issues – even historical ones – by osmosis. Heavy-duty topics wrapped effortlessly around alternating country bass lines and his beaming, jangly 12-string guitar.

That’s where my relationship with him began. And I mean relationship, because although I never met him, he was a huge part of my past. I was raised on country music and when his fresh and ample approach to the genre arose, I was hooked.

I wanted to be like Gordon Lightfoot. One of my first guitars was a 12-string acoustic; I got it so I could try to sound like him, and I learned to play by listening to absolutely every chord change he made. Our high school country-rock band opened almost every gig with a Lightfoot song, either Alberta Bound or Cotton Jenny. We loved playing those songs, and people responded.

I was at what was then called the Air Canada Centre in 2000, covering the benefit concert for Better Farming magazine, when Lightfoot took the stage. Of course, he sang hits like If You Could Read My Mind and Sundown, as well as others that didn’t have much to do with agriculture or the plight of rural people.

But simply standing there in his confident, proud and yet relaxed stance meant so much. It was like saying to farmers that someone important, not someone self-important, cared and understood.

The event drew 10,000 people. Not a bad crowd. But being broadcast live by CBC amplified its reach appreciably. It showed the entire country a rare coming together of uptown and backroads Canada.

That’s where Lightfoot belonged, with a foot in both. I can’t think of anyone who so naturally bridged those worlds.

How lucky we were to share the life and times of Gordon Lightfoot.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is the Guelph-based Past-President of International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, and the Director, Agricultural Communications Program at the University of Illinois.