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Remembering Gordon Lightfoot

Montreal songwriter Alex Nicol reflects on the life and times of a Canadian music legend.

by Alex Nicol

Photo by Art Usherson

I jolted out of sleep in the early morning on May 1, not sure exactly why, but feeling a need to check the news. The first piece I read was sharing the news of Gordon Lightfoot’s passing, age 84, at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. I’ve been in a daze ever since, half in shock, half in glowing remembrance of what Lightfoot’s music has meant to me, and what it must mean to so many Canadians.

I don’t remember the first time I heard “If You Could Read My Mind.” It was probably playing in the background all the time up at my grandparents cottage, where we would spend our summers as a kid. My Grandma is a big Lightfoot fan – always was. She would play his record throughout the day, and she undoubtedly passed her love of Gord on to me. Hearing him sing “Carefree Highway” on my grandparents vintage speakers gave me such an overwhelming feeling of joy that even now, as I sit in my small second floor apartment in Montreal, my body is overtaken by a sense of joy as I am thrown back into my young mind and I recall that feeling of beauty, hardship, and adventure that seems to be so intertwined in his voice.

Then, in my teenage years, when we used to sit around the fire by the lake singing songs, we always used to sing one by Gord, and it was almost always “If You Could Read My Mind.” I still think it’s one of the most perfect songs ever written and it remains etched into my memory so deeply that when I hear it I think of all my early experiences in the Gatineau Valley, deep in Canadian cottage country. There is no doubt in my mind that Gordon Lightfoot inspired me to pick up a guitar and try, in my own way, like he was able to do so eloquently, to weave stories into songs. 

I share these experiences because I know I’m not the only Canadian to relate to Lightfoot in this way. His voice is so utterly Canadian, his sound so spacious and real, his music so evocative of the Canadian experience. And as the Canadian experience ebbs and flows with the passage of time, and with Lightfoot’s passing so fresh and raw still, I am overcome with a reverence for what he was able to do in his life, which was to document his experiences as a Canadian from small-town Ontario and intertwine them into songs that told stories about what it’s like to be Canadian. He is the epitome of a singer songwriter, our very own town crier and bard, and we were lucky to have him for so long. 

 Listen to Alex Nicol’s new single, “Been A Long Year” here. Nicol performs at L’Esco (Montreal) on May 9 | RSVP