By J. Hogan
Like many who grew up with icons of music whose careers spanned decades, I’ve come to terms with the truth that time steals away everyone eventually. Someday Bruce Springsteen, a childhood hero of mine, will join Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison in the obituary column and he’ll take a giant piece of my childhood with him.
Gordon Lightfoot’s passing, however, left me stunned. I’d never thought of his impending meeting with mortality, mostly because his superior genius - on display for all since my before my birth - seemed more like a pillar than a person’s gift, something rich and weathering, but too deep to be passing in normal order.
Lightfoot, a Canadian Music Hall of Famer, was inducted by America’s Bard, Bob Dylan, who said every time he heard a Gordon Lightfoot song he wished it would never end.
Not only was Lightfoot a great guitar playing singer-songwriter, but he was also a brilliant arranger, a trained musician who charted the string parts for many of his songs and one of the most poetic lyricists of the last century.
His lilting ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was waltz-time sea shanty wherein the repeated motifs of electric guitar melodies conjured sounds familiar to the Irish coastal pubs where mourning mariners was first wed to the sounds of limerick and folk music, making Lightfoot’s song resonate before the first of its lyrics sound off.
The story of the late 70s bulk freighter’s sinking sounds like an eyewitness account of an event where no eyewitnesses survived, but one line midsong asks the eternal question of unrecoverable peril:
"Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?"
In that one line Lightfoot summed up the frustration and seeming unfairness of 29 lives sent to the frigid bottom of Lake Superior for the crime of doing their best to provide for their families.
In Lightfoot’s beautiful "If You Could Read My Mind" his poetry elevates the 50-year-old song far above the vast majority of pop music as he uses metaphoric imagery to tell of a relationship gone stale and his wish that it could be redeemed.
If you could read my mind, love What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old time movie 'Bout a ghost from a wishing well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me And I will never be set free
As long as I am a ghost you can't see
Gordon Lightfoot’s catalog is a daunting look into an artist’s mind so adept as to inspire musical legends from Dylan to Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffet, and so amazing that it can frustrate others nowhere near as gifted.
The combination of music and words conveys emotions at master level.
Alas, the master, now, is gone.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.