Blending folk, pop, and country genres together effortlessly, acoustic-based Canadian artist Gordon Lightfoot became one of contemporary music’s most treasured songwriters throughout his heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. His ability to weave historic tales together with modern-day lessons relatable to everyday listeners drew high praise from songwriting royalty. Bob Dylan once said that Lightfoot has never written a bad song. The Band songwriter Robbie Robertson was a longtime fan, and Lightfoot’s influence can be heard throughout the roots rock group’s discography.
From fables about courageous whales to narrative-driven hits about famous shipwrecks, we break down the best Gordon Lightfoot songs below.
A songwriting icon, Gordon Lightfoot’s poetic, flowing lyrics are front and center with his gentle, melodic folk song ‘Changes.’ The Canadian musician sings about the constant changes in nature to symbolize life’s ever-changing “time parade.” While everyone learns that the only constant is change as their life progresses, in the 1960s when Lightfoot began experiencing success in the music industry, much of the world was going through significant cultural and social unrest. This acoustic-based track honors tradition (which was an important aspect of Gordon’s originals) while supporting the principles of societal advancement.
10. Ode to Big Blue
One of the key elements of Lightfoot’s songwriting is his ability to tell a rich, historical story while making you feel like you are experiencing the events in the present as you listen to the song. It may seem like a story about a whale should be relegated to children’s nursery rhymes, but Gordon’s tale of a colossal Narwhal named “Big Blue” is anything but juvenile. His home country of Canada has a long history of whaling, in particular, due to the presence of Inuit tribes who have long used the animal for many economic and spiritual purposes. While many of Big Blue’s sons and relatives have fallen prey to hunters, his smarts have kept him alive for a century. This story about a mighty whale weaves together a brilliant metaphor for resilience, determination, and legacy.
9. Did She Mention My Name
The title track to his third studio album, with the release of the country-centric single ‘Did She Mention My Name,’ Lightfoot experienced a resounding career transformation. Suddenly, in the late ‘60s, he found himself in the ranks of songwriting giants like Bob Dylan. Despite his commercial appeal, he never sacrificed artistic integrity. While this album marked a more refined yet experimental Lightfoot sound due to the hiring of producer John Simon (it was his idea to add orchestral sounds to Gordon’s recordings), the collection of compositions proves the troubadour has a seemingly endless mix of originals to choose from (well over 200 by some accounts). This tune is a classic country story about a breakup, and for Lightfoot specifically, it was about divorce. Though it was hard for him to sing live due to his personal connection to it, he continued to add it to set lists because it resonated so deeply with his fans.
One of the singer-songwriter’s big hits, ‘Beautiful’ is an elegant ode to a lover with a dreamlike essence due to his signature ethereal, acoustic-based instrumentation. Appearing on his popular ‘72 album Don Quixote, it was one of several releases that became a huge hit, especially in his home country. While the delicate tune at first appears to be a tribute to his one and only, the story goes that Lightfoot actually wrote it about a woman he was close with who tragically passed away. This added layer gives the poignant track a beautifully haunting feel.
7. Rainy Day People
Another Lightfoot original heavy on metaphors and symbolism, ‘Rainy Day People’ was a wildly popular single, and proved that the musician would have staying power throughout the ‘70s. The ‘75 release was a big hit in the US, not only almost cracking into the top 25 on the Hot 100 chart, but taking the top spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. A song about finding solace and comfort from those wiser and more experienced than yourself, “rainy day people” is a metaphor for the familial unit that supports each other through life’s ups and downs.
6. The Watchman’s Gone
One of Lightfoot’s more underrated tracks, ‘The Watchman’s Gone’ is an expertly executed recording with deep lyrical meaning and a perfect mix of acoustic instrumentation and soulful single string picking and vocal lines. While Gordon got his start as a folk artist, over his career he fused together neighboring genres like pop and country. A great representation of his multifaceted songwriting style, the song’s open-ended story has long been left up to interpretation. Some feel it’s about the freeing of one’s body while passing away. Lightfoot traditionalists feel it’s about a movie that debuted around the same time the song was written in the mid. ‘70s, Emperor of the North. Others have even drawn themes of overcoming alcoholism and fighting off the devil from the lyrics. The decades-long debate is still going strong, and highlights “Gord’s” expertise as an intriguing and mysterious wordsmith.
5. Early Morning Rain
An inspired number about the magnificence of watching airplanes take flight at a California airport, this activity was one of Gord’s favorite ways to pass the time when feeling homesick. During one particular plane-watching escapade, he had his newborn son with him. As he slept beside him he took out his guitar from its case and softly put together the words and melody to ‘Early Morning Rain.’ The relatable track, which oscillates between the old-time days of riding trains to the modern day preference of air travel, was a favorite among fellow folksy artists. Peter, Paul, and Mary covered the uplifting tune in the mid. ‘60s, and when Canadian duo Ivan & Sylvia covered it, they reached the top spot with it on adult contemporary charts. Even Elvis released his own rendition in 1973.
4. Carefree Highway
A top ten hit on American charts, ‘Carefree Highway’ is another strong Lightfoot release that features a more simple songwriting prompt. The easygoing tune features the troubadour traveling down the open road reminiscing about the past and wondering what the future holds. It took Gordon almost a year to complete the tune. He got the idea while traveling in Arizona when he saw a sign for the small town of “Carefree” just outside of Phoenix. In true Lightfoot fashion, that simple sign sparked a mental exercise for him, and while he worked out the concept in his head, he kept coming back to images of his parents. This gave way to one of the song’s most treasured, accessible lyrics, “Pickin’ up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream. I wonder how the old folks are tonight.”
3. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
In 1975, Lightfoot put his detective hat on when a short headline about a shipwreck on Lake Superior caught his attention. The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald took the lives of almost 30 people on board the cargo ship. Despite the media’s lack of coverage, the events stuck with Lightfoot, who had already covered the story of another shipwreck in his song ‘Marie Christine’ in the late ‘60s. He combed through newspaper clippings, magazines, and any snippets he could find about the wreckage as wrote the tune. The end product feels like a musical retelling of a carefully researched historical nonfiction book. Epic in both its lyrics and length (the album version runs over 6 minutes), the drama of the single is intensified by the melody, which Gordon borrowed from an old Irish standard he heard when he was a child. The line “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead,” is factually correct. Because of the unusually cold water in Lake Superior, bodies tend to sink and not resurface. When explorer Frederick Shannon explored the wreck in 1994 (160 meters below the surface), he found a sailor fully clothed and lying face down in the sediment. Considered to be a folk song, it was a surprise hit on the charts, and climbed all the way to the second spot on US pop charts.
2. If You Could Read My Mind
Lightfoot had a penchant for storytelling, however he also penned some of folk-pop’s most poignantly personal songs that showed intense vulnerability and emotion. One of his biggest commercial successes, ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ was one of those autobiographical confessionals that featured honest, reflective lyrics penned while going through his first divorce. The life of a traveling musician can wear on relationships, and Gordon, despite his romanticist tendencies, was no stranger to failed marriages. This heart-tugging, mournful theme would often show up on his albums, even throughout the decade of the 1980s.
Gordon experienced significant success with his historically-laced singles like ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,’ but his songs focusing on rocky relationships, heartbreak, and loneliness are what got him to the tops of charts for weeks on end. Maybe it’s because these are universal themes around since time immemorial. Or maybe the signature hit status of ‘Sundown’ is due more so to its earworm of a melody. The songwriter wrote the popular track during a particularly turbulent time in his life. A woman he was dating lived life in the fast lane, and while Gord was at home writing, the warm rays of the setting sun shining in his office window helped give him the inspiration for the moody, commanding track. It’s haunting nature hangs around to this day. The #1 single has been used in quite a few modern TV shows and movies like 13 Reasons Why and Supernatural.
2 thoughts on “11 Best Gordon Lightfoot Songs, Folk-Country Songwriting Icon”
When it comes to Gordon Lightfoot, his ability to write wonderful songs and his talent at playing live, it is so very difficult to choose only 12 top songs. I do like your selection. There are so many songs that we, as listeners, love to hear and, as players, love to sing. His work will go on for a very long time. That’s what makes songs classics – longevity.
Thanks for your comment Geoff. He was a great artist who left an amazing legacy.