By: John A. McCurdy
In March 1966, music industry legend Albert Grossman – then managing the careers of rising stars Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan – engineered United Artists’ release of Gordon Lightfoot’s first LP, Lightfoot! Recorded in New York in November 1964, the album’s fourteen tracks captured, with stark and brooding simplicity, Lightfoot’s signature sound – rich as oak, warm as spring sunshine, quietly illuminating, self-effacing.
The opening track, ‘Rich Man’s Spiritual’ – much like the other thirteen songs – presents a caricature of Lightfoot, consumed by the idea that he can buy his way into heaven if he puts himself in the way of a little blues – just enough, that is, to establish a modicum of credibility with the Lord. “Gonna buy me a poor man’s trouble / Yes and Lord to lead me home,” he sings, “And when I get my trouble and woe / Then homeward I will go / I’m gonna get a little trouble and woe to lead me home.” Never suspecting that the blues might be real, Lightfoot’s young man runs up against some truly unwanted suffering.
‘Long River,’ the album’s second track, shows how the first certainty lost is the constancy of young love when, after describing an idyllic country home he laments: “And I’d give it all to you / If her love were true / Where the long river flows / By my window.” In ‘The Way I Feel’ – the haunting track that follows – Lightfoot’s young man becomes a “tall oak tree / Alone and crying” – a green-bowed home for his lover, imagined as a young robin outgrowing her nest and flying away. The deep sense of loss in ‘The Way I Feel’ looks forward in time to Lightfoot’s 1976 masterwork, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’
In ‘For Lovin’ Me,’ Lightfoot’s blistering sketch of disillusioned young man turned callous womanizer, his character boasts to a new lover already on the outs: “I’ve had a hundred more like you / So don’t be blue / I’ll have a thousand before I’m through” - lost, like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in hyper-masculine conquest fantasies. Lightfoot’s reverent interpretation of Ewan McColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ follows, however, as womanizer turns troubadour, singing a solemn ode the “the first time.”
From this point the feet of Lightfoot’s Rich Man begin to touch the earth, his troubadour self now humble enough to accept, and even celebrate, nature’s cycles of life and death through a sweet rendition of Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes.’ ‘Early Mornin’ Rain’ follows, arguably the album’s most terrestrial track and Lightfoot’s greatest composition. With an aching in his heart and his “pockets full of sand,” Lightfoot’s troubadour, lying drunk in a patch of long grasses, watches helplessly as commercial jets ascend “far above the clouds,” to a netherworld where the comforts of landscape give way to sun-bright weightlessness. “You can’t jump a jet plane,” goes the songs refrain, “Like you can a freight train / So I’d best be on my way / In the early mornin’ rain.”*
Later, when it seems a wayward soul will once again tell a heartbroken lover, “That’s what you get for lovin’ me,” along comes Lightfoot’s inspired interpretation of ‘Pride of Man,’ a protest ballad marked by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Singing “Can’t you see the flash of fire / Ten times brighter than the day,” Lightfoot warns Prometheus to “Turn around / Go back down / Back the way you came” - to forfeit stealing fire from the gods.
Concluding that “only God can lead the people back into the earth again,” Lightfoot moves into “Ribbon of Darkness,” where nuclear apocalypse gives way to self-revelation, his troubadour grieving lost love again, and going – as Neil Young would later put it – “Out of the blue / And into the black.” Too late for forgiveness, and stung by a dose of his own callous betrayal in ‘Oh, Linda,’ the album’s second last track, the final cut, ‘Peaceful Waters,’ offers up a blessing for “mankind” as Lightfoot trades the pain of love for the chalice of spiritual faith. His Rich Man comes full circle, the blues leaving a healthy sense of unease at the enormous difficulty of loving well.
* Many years later Lightfoot would reveal that the song had been written while caring for his first newborn. See the liner notes to the Lightfoot Songbook compilation (Rhino-Atlantic, 1999).
Originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of Between the Lines, McMaster University’s undergraduate humanities quarterly. Reprinted in 2007 at Wayne Francis' Lightfoot! website: http://wwww.lightfoot.ca/lightrev.htm