David Carlson: Mourning and memory


Mourning the death of someone whom one has loved can take many forms.

Take the recent passing of the songwriter and singer Gordon Lightfoot.

Some of us who love Lightfoot’s many songs and the unique quality of his voice will find it too painful to listen for a while to even one of his creations.

Others will pay tribute to Lightfoot by playing his songs, one after another.

My wife and I are also remembering Lightfoot in somewhat different ways.

Lyrics of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” have been running through my wife’s mind, the grief commemorated in this song of shipwreck on Lake Superior combining for her with the grief of Lightfoot’s death.

Perhaps that song of Lightfoot has a special appeal to my wife, as our annual summer trek to see Lake Superior is a kind of sacred pilgrimage for her.

Unlike her, I have been thinking about one of the prized possessions in my vinyl collection, the album that introduced me to Gordon Lightfoot.

Simply titled “Lightfoot!” (1966), the album features some of his earliest songs, including personal favorites “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Ribbon of Darkness” and “Peaceful Waters.”

The cover of this album offers, for me, an insight into Lightfoot at the age of 28.

He is photographed sitting alone in a chair, his long legs splayed out in front of him as he cradles a guitar in his hands.

Lightfoot isn’t looking at the camera, but rather off to the side as if something has drawn his attention.

The lower half of Lightfoot’s body seems relaxed, perhaps reflecting his growing up in a small town in Ontario, Canada. But Lightfoot’s head and facial expression show a young artist ready to jump up and head off into a new future.

I’m sure I am not the only one who notices that singers’ voices have a different quality when they are yet to make it big from when they have achieved fame.

Some of that difference is undoubtedly because money is scarce when an artist is just starting out. Whereas later, an artist who has achieved fame has access to better studios, recording equipment, engineers and backup artists.

On the “Lightfoot!” album, the money must have been tight.

When I close my eyes and listen to the album, I see the artist alone in a small studio, just Lightfoot, his guitar and a microphone. There are no orchestral strings, no backup singers or instrumentalists, no polish.

On later albums, Lightfoot has all the add-ons that came with success. Yes, his voice is still hauntingly beautiful, and I would stack up his later ballads with the best storytelling in song that one can ever hear.

But if I were forced to have only one Gordon Lightfoot album in my collection, it would be “Lightfoot!” from 1966, when his voice was full of hope and probably some doubts and a bit of fear.

Scientists say that sound waves from Earth never die out but continue to echo out into space for eternity.

I hope that is true, as I find comfort in knowing that Gordon Lightfoot’s songs will never disappear, but will always be a beloved part of the music of the spheres.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].

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