Gordon Lightfoot revisits the past, but he does not dwell there.
The singer/songwriter had his first pop hit, with the resonant ballad "If You Could Read My Mind," in 1971, and still sings that song in concert—he always does, along with the never-imitated classic that inked him indelibly into the collective '70s psyche, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
But the 72-year-old's concerts are a full two hours, not two songs. "We'll go back to the last album, from 2006, and we'll do something from that, and then something from the album before that, and work right back through the decades," Lightfoot says.
Lightfoot talks by phone from his office in Toronto, delivering wry remarks and concise anecdotes in a low, gentle, conversational tone. He's polished and knowledgeable, gliding effortlessly from topics such as the '60s Irish folk quartet the Clancy Brothers to maritime politics to his 29-year-old son's recording career.
His banter isn't as carefully crafted as his songs, but there's a strong theme: The conversation always comes back to Lightfoot's being happy—not reverent, or maudlin, but pretty happy. "I'm working, and I love it, and I feel really, really happy to be able to do it," he says. "It goes by fast, and love and work carries me through."
His personal life has admittedly been a checkerboard, with "a couple of ex-old ladies" and six children with four different mothers. But he dotes on his children, noting that five of the six live in Toronto and have produced four grandchildren. "It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride up to this point, but singing and songwriting keep things on a level track," he says. "I've managed to stay the course."
When he talks, he's right back in the moment, like when he's recalling the Toronto bar where he was playing to his hard-won following of about 150 when folk singers Ian and Sylvia Tyson saw him. The Tysons gave him his first break, recording "For Lovin' Me" and "Early Morning Rain," and later promoted the same songs to Peter, Paul, and Mary, who had a hit with "For Lovin' Me."
He can make his early days as a member of a barbershop quartet sound like he's talking about last spring, not 50-odd years ago, and readily recalls the title of the song another barbershop quartet broke into spontaneously when he and they came upon a bridal couple in a hotel lobby a couple of years ago. "You've got the very same dreamy eyes of blue," he croons, "They sang ‘Just Like Your Mother Was'—that was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw. And they didn't even know those people. I thought, ‘Now I've seen everything.'"
Still, he's toiling, writing. He does cardio workouts every single day, a legacy from 1982, when he stopped drinking alcohol. "It's what I did to fill the time," he says. "It helps my singing, my breathing, helps me feel strong. At 72 years of age, I don't feel tired, I feel rejuvenated after a tour."
Lightfoot's voice is still a melodic growl, but without quite as much force as it had on his first recordings of "Carefree Highway" and "Sundown." He says he lets it "look after itself." He's far more worried about his guitar playing. "Not a day goes by I don't practice, don't pick up one of my instruments," he says.
He also stays in touch with the descendants of the victims of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the ore carrier that sank in a storm on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975. Lightfoot wrote about it just a month later, inspired by a Newsweek article, and his song led him to a long association with survivor's groups, benefit performances, and funding a scholarship to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy since 1977. "There have been hundreds of shipwrecks, so they say, in the Great Lakes," he says. "It's unbelievable, the numbers of men who have died there in shipping accidents. They forget all about these shipwrecks when they happen. It's like they're just gone."
On stage, Lightfoot does not forget those men, not even for a night. He's also quite conscious of some of those who have died who have covered songs he still sings—Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins. "Every time I do the song ‘Early Morning Rain,' I think of Elvis," he says.
This tour, he'll also be thinking of his long-time lead guitarist Terry Clements, who died Feb. 28. Says Lightfoot simply: "He will be missed."
Lightfoot himself almost died with an aneurysm in 2002. "I was unconscious then for six weeks, and I swear I don't remember a thing," he says. "So it makes me think of those who have passed, how their music is their legacy. I guess it's up to the rest of us—the families, the people who enjoy the music—to carry along. I don't know, maybe those people are angels. I always wondered, those who have passed on, are they watching what we're doing?"
Maybe they are, and maybe Lightfoot will join them one day. He's okay with the notion. "I've had a full-length life. I don't feel like it's passed me by or rushed by me.
"I'm really happy with it."