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CHRIS KNIGHT: Five things we learned about Gordon Lightfoot from the doc If You Could Read My Mind

Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot.
Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot. - Peter J Thompson/National Post

The documentary interviews some well-known Canadian singers including Sarah McLachlan and Anne Murray

You don’t get to 80 years old – especially in the Canadian music industry – without a few stories. Directors Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe gather quite a few in their new documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind . Here are five things we learned about the octogenarian singer-songwriter.

Regrets? He has a few.

Lightfoot works assiduously on his lyrics, but they don’t always turn out perfectly. A few years ago, he changed a line in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – “At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in” became “At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then …” – when he learned that the 1975 shipping tragedy had not involved a caved-in hatch, which suggested human error on the part of the crew.

But he has made changes for more personal reasons, once modifying a line in the title song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” from “the feelings that you lack,” to “the feelings that we lack.” The song is about one of his divorces, and his daughter reminded him that such things are seldom about just one party in the marriage.

And he says in the documentary that he’ll never again write a song like “That’s What You Get For Loving Me,” which suggests an unfaithful partner. He was married at the time. “I didn’t know what chauvinism was,” he says now.

He has fans where you least expect them

The documentary interviews some well-known Canadian singers including Sarah McLachlan and Anne Murray, and reveals a long-time mutual admiration between Lightfoot and Bob Dylan. But time and again who should pop up but celebrity Lightfoot fan Alec Baldwin? “This is a guy who sang poems,” says the smitten actor.

He got his start as a drummer

After a stint in a barbershop quartet, the pre-famous Lightfoot was a drummer in a band, a fact that may have contributed to the distinctive beats in his guitar-playing style. He also got an office job at Royal Bank, but gave it up to concentrate on his music, thank heavens. Although it means we’ll never hear a song like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” but set in the financial services sector.

He never knew when inspiration would strike

Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night,” considered a paean to Canadian winters, evoking firelight and a glass of wine, was written in a Cleveland hotel room on a muggy summer evening, when Lightfoot was missing his homeland and his loved ones there.

Canadian living may have saved him

Lightfoot was drinking heavily in the early 1980s, a fact that hurt his relationships and his music at the time. (His brief acting career, playing a U.S. Marshal in Harry Tracy: The Last of the Wild Bunch, was during this time.) But as the movie reveals, he got on the wagon – or more specifically, into a canoe. Camping trips and a general woodsy lifestyle coincided with his recovery, and no doubt aided his already distinctly Canadian musical output.


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