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Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian folk legend, dies at 84

Gordon Lightfoot, seen here performing at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction and awards in 2012 in New York City, has died at the age of 84.
Larry Busacca
Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame
Gordon Lightfoot, seen here performing at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction and awards in 2012 in New York City, has died at the age of 84.

Canadian folk-rock icon Gordon Lightfoot has died at the age of 84.

Lightfoot died at a Toronto hospital on Monday night of natural causes, according to his publicist. The singer-songwriter had long suffered from serious health problems that caused extensive hospitalization in 2002.

Lightfoot hailed from a tiny town in Ontario. He first made his name in Toronto's coffeehouse scene. There, he impressed folk music stars Ian and Sylvia, who helped introduce him to the world outside Canada by recording some of his songs. Lightfoot himself found international fame in 1971, with a song called "If You Could Read My Mind."

That song, says former Toronto Globe and Mail music critic Robert Everett Green, contains what would become some of Lightfoot's favorite themes: loss, longing and nostalgia.

"It's a song about inarticulateness," Everett Green said. "But somehow, it really makes an amazing case. Here's someone who really can't say what he wants to say, yet by singing about that inability, he connects."

Lightfoot's voice was raspy and regretful, the perfect complement to his rugged hinterlands look. But the hearty facade hid a roiling personal life.

In a 1983 NPR interview, Lightfoot – one year sober at the time – discussed his struggle with alcoholism. "The people that were very close to me were beginning to question my credibility and my decision-making process," he confessed, adding: "Now, the irony is that they still question my credibility and my decision-making process."

Many of Lightfoot's songs about Canadian wildlife, streets and weather doubled as cultural elegies — like his 1976 hit "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a dramatic retelling of a real-life maritime disaster.

"As he's singing it, you're getting the strong sense that not only is one ship going down, but a whole way of life is disappearing," says Everett Green. "It's something kind of dusty and genuine and isolated, and it's gone."

Lightfoot never displayed the range or inventiveness of such contemporaries as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but some fans found the consistency of his wistful ballads reassuring. Everett Green says Lightfoot's best songs, such as the often-covered "Early Morning Rain," described a fading world.

"You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train," says Everett Green, quoting the song's chorus. "The freights crossing the prairie, with that great lonely moaning-whistle sound, have been obliterated by jet travel and the shrinking of spaces and the invasion of the hinterland that formerly was one of Canada's strengths."

Gordon Lightfoot wrote more than 400 songs about what he loved — and what he missed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.