By Eric Greenberg
June 15,2012 — I was on the phone with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic priest in Ontario, and I mentioned that I would be attending the induction of my friend Gordon Lightfoot into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York.
The priest was impressed.
"Wow. He is an icon, a legend here in Canada," he said, possibly thinking I may not know this.
But then he told me something I did not know. "When I was in high school we had a class where we studied 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy' for a week, examining the lyrics and the accuracy of the story," he confided. "It was very historically accurate."
How many songwriters can say that one of their songs is required reading in the school system?
When I related this story to Gordon Lightfoot on the eve of his induction, he added that his unexpected role of classroom teacher is not limited to his 1967 "Canadian Railroad Trilogy".
"I am told that they also now study 'Wreck' (of the Edmund Fitzgerald)" in schools, Lightfoot responded. "I'm very pleased."
The next day, in the grand ballroom of the New York Marriott Marquis hotel on Broadway there was Gordon Lightfoot, Canada's greatest-singer songwriter joined by legendary Detroit rocker Bob Seger, Jim Steinman, composer of "Bat Out of Hell," one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Don Schlitz, who wrote Kenny Roger's number one hit "The Gambler" among other country hits, and the 60-year songwriting team of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (the musical "The Fantastiks") as the 2012 inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Other honorees at the 43rd annual event included Bette Midler (life achievement award); co-writers Ben E. King, Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber for the classic "Stand By Me"; folk legend Woody Guthrie with the hall's new Pioneer Award; music publisher Lance Freed, (son of legendary rock and roll disc jockey Alan Freed) and soul singer Ne-Yo for best new emerging artist.
Besides the inductees, performers included Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, Steve Miller, Meatloaf, Take 6, Kenny Rogers, Valerie Simpson and a wonderful new singer songwriter named LP, who impressed the high level recording industry audience with a rousing version of Guthrie's "This Land is your Land."
Songwriter hall president Jimmy Webb, (composer of "Up Up and Away," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and many other hits) said this was the best attended in the history of the organization, which was founded in 1969.
The formula for the evening worked nicely: honorees performed their own songs, and guest artists did a cover version.
Steve Miller, who first met Lightfoot in the late 1960s, performed "Sundown" before officially inducting Gordon into the hall of fame. Miller, famous for writing "Fly Like an Eagle," "The Joker" and a string of rock hits, recited a list of Lightfoot's many achievements, including artists who have covered Lightfoot tunes (Elvis, Barbra, Judy Collins, Grateful Dead, Judy Collins, Jerry Lee Lewis) and related the famous quote from Bob Dylan that when he hears a Lightfoot song, he wishes it would last forever.
Lightfoot then did a stirring rendition of "If You Could Read My Mind" accompanied by longtime bassist Rick Haynes, and new band member guitarist Carter Lancaster.
Before the ceremony, I talked with Lightfoot about the event and songwriting. When he first got the call from the hall, Lightfoot said he wasn't all that familiar with the event.
But after receiving a boat load of congratulatory phone calls from friends after the news was made public, he looked into it and realized it was a big deal in the American music world. "I started getting excited about it," he confided, especially since the honor focuses on songwriting, as opposed to recording or performing.
Because it's a songwriter's award "it means a lot," he said. "It means I have touched a lot of people, communciated with people through my music. I was accepted as a recording artist after many years in the industry in the United States, and that's important to Canadian artists in that way. To be recognized as a songwriter is super special. It means a lot in the years to come. I'm very appreciative and it's appreciated by my band members. It's a shot in the arm for us and it's going to be helpful."
We also discussed the art of songwriting and how Lightfoot's technique has evolved since the early days of "I'm Not Saying" and "Early Morning Rain."
"A lot of my earlier stuff was kind of rough. Roughly hewn so to speak," he explained. "Whereas, as I moved on and made more records, I kept working on improvement, always trying to improve my work, and the mechanism began to kick in.
"My songwriting smoothed out a great deal in the latter half," of his recording career, which consists of 20 original albums. After years of working to perfect his skills, he said he was able to improve on song structure and constructed songs "that played out a lot better."
Of his later songs, he said, "I found that stuff more personally acceptable."
Lightfoot agreed with my suggestion that his 1973 number one album "Sundown" was a turning point in the development of his songwriting.
When asked what his favorite "Gordon Lightfoot" album is, the artist did not hesitate to replied: "East of Midnight" (released in 1986).
But that doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate the older tunes. "We do return to the rawness of the acoustic sound again and I did on later albums."
Also affecting the quality of the early songwriting, he noted, was the pressure of business.
"When you're under contract, you gotta produce," he said. But freed from that pressure in later years gave him more time to develop the songs.
At the hall of fame ceremony the 73-year-old troubadour told TV and newspaper interviewers that he was no longer writing new songs, concentrating his time instead on family obligations. (Although I suspect a few songs lurking on his tape recorder will someday demand to see the light of day.)
Nevertheless, Gordon Lightfoot says he intends to perform songs from his vaunted 40 year repertoire - and adding old favorites - as he continues to maintain a vigorous concert schedule throughout North America.
"We like to add tunes and continually review the repertoire to make sure the songs fit it," he said.
© 2012 by Eric Greenberg
Eric Greenberg, is a former national award-winning United States newspaper reporter who has been covering Gordon Lightfoot's career for more than 35 years for such newspapers as the Buffalo Courier Express, Buffalo Evening News, The Village Voice, The Bergen Record, The Daily News, New York Newsday and USA Today.
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