Lesser Known Lightfoot: Glimpses of the Singer’s Spiritual Side

I’ve been humming Gordon Lightfoot tunes since his passing last month.

I mean, a little more than usual. 

My brothers and and I latched onto Gordon Lightfoot’s special genius as teenagers when visiting our mom’s side of the family in California the spring when Sundown topped the charts.

We then learned that our beloved Uncle Dan was a Lightfoot fan. He played his albums for us during our stay and that sealed the deal.

Ever since, Gordon Lightfoot songs have had their moments on the soundtrack of my life.

When our family moved from the Kansas prairie to Colorado Springs two years later, Carefree Highway fit my feelings of freedom like a summer breeze. About a year after that a certain young man I was dating in college shared his heart by lending me three albums: Michael Martin Murphey’s Wildfire, John Stewart’s Phoenix Concerts and Gordon Lightfoot’s Cold on the Shoulder.

I married that guy. 

We saw Lightfoot in concert twice and bought his music through every technological shift the music industry threw at us after those thoughtful vinyl days when we pored over liner notes and artwork while taking in an entire album as the artistic whole it was intended to be.

But whether it was cassette tapes, CD’s or Spotify streaming, Gordon Lightfoot was always in the mix. 

The evening of Lightfoot’s passing, my husband, brother and I texted links to the Lightfoot songs we love for the memories they carry, among them Christian Island, Sixteen Miles (to Seven Lakes) and especially The House You Live In. Yeah. Those guys know the B sides. 

Rick and I have had an ongoing debate about whether The Canadian Railroad Trilogy or The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the greatest song in Lightfoot’s considerable repertoire. Rick votes for the Wreck and of course he’s right but I treasure the Trilogy, with its brilliant pacing and panoramic history.

In fact, just a week before Gordon Lightfoot’s passing we’d been out walking and coming upon a rusty metal monstrosity defacing the landscape, it was Rick who quoted the Trilogy’s ironic “built the mines and the mills and the factories for the good of us all.”

We were humming Lightfoot just before he passed.

The New York Times published a list of Top Ten Essential Gordon Lightfoot Songs, and they’re all worth revisiting. Still, I find myself contemplating the spirituality evident in Lightfoot’s lesser known work. I’m not alone. Apparently “Gordon Lightfoot religion” has risen significantly among Google searches of late, so I must be in good company.

It may surprise some people that the man who wrote Sundown and That’s What You Get for Loving Me had much of a spiritual side, but it shouldn’t. Everybody has a spiritual side, even if unacknowledged, and among Lightfoot’s lesser known work are songs revealing a searching, spiritual heart. 

I’m not claiming special insight.

I loved the documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind and learned more than I’d ever known about the pain the legendary singer must have hidden, results of choices well outside his choirboy days.

But Lightfoot’s poetic style allows his listeners to connect to his music in very personal ways that admittedly may be colored by thought far beyond the songwriter’s intention. In my case, they come from a fan attentive to the nuances of the “restless heart” in every one of us.

Lightfoot’s 2013 interview with the Canadian spirituality and justice magazine Broadview reveals a little bit of his spiritual side as well. He is reflective of past decisions and particularly admiring of various women who have helped him understand other points of view along the way. Speaking of That’s What You Get for Loving Me, he exclaims, “Oh my goodness, I’ll never write another song that. That one taught me a lesson. It really did. Others still sing it, but I won’t anymore.”

In the opening scene of Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Lightfoot watches his young self sing that song, and the regret on the aged singer’s face is palpable.

Lightfoot revealed a similar penitential spirit over You’ll Still Be Needing Me in the liner notes for his 1999 collection, Gordon Lightfoot Songbook: “Oh, my chauvinism rears its ugly head again,” he admits.

In the Broadview interview Lightfoot relates how he began his singing career as a child at St. Paul’s United Church in Orillia, Ontario. (His funeral was held at this same church.) Lightfoot recalls singing solos there at an early age and acknowledges the impact those early years had on his desire for compassion and justice in the world. A photo of the 12-year-old Gordon Lightfoot in his choir robe is shown on the screen in this 2017 tribute by St. Paul’s church choir.

“I can say one thing: it’s faith in God that keeps me going,” Lightfoot adds at the end of the interview.

“I go to church a lot more than I used to. But the faith that I got, I learned right here in this church when I was a kid.”

It’s not much of a reach, then, to surmise that Lightfoot’s early years in church are the root of the gentle surrender revealed in Mr. Rock of Ages from his 1980 album Dream Street Rose. I too grew up singing “Rock of Ages” in church, and I think this is one of Lightfoot’s loveliest songs. “Mr. Rock of Ages” is honored for having “got no ego, got no pride.”

The singer sees the noncompetitive nature in God’s love and declares, “You ain’t got no axe to grind.” The intimacy of the relationship with the Divine grows throughout the song, culminating lines of self-gift: “I’m a part of you now/I am yours, you belong to me.” It is a lovely, lyrical prayer to the transcendent lover of every soul, and it’s Lightfoot’s most beautiful spiritual song.

But if I had to choose just one spiritually sensitive Gordon Lightfoot tune to never stop listening to, it might well be The House You Live In, from the 1976 album Summertime Dream.

Sometimes I think Summertime Dream is Lightfoot’s most perfect album. It contains The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, after all, along with tender love songs (Spanish Moss, I’m not Supposed to Care), meditations on jealousy (Too Many Clues in this Room) and the haunting Protocol, a profound reflection on the cost of bloodshed in human history.

The House You Live In is a stirring collection of wisdom for living the truly good life. It has the ring of a father’s advice to a son about to make his way in the world: “Be calm in the face of all common disgraces” and “Remember the woman who waits,” for example. The final chorus line sticks in the mind and has reminded me many times over the years that in the end it’s how we treat others that really matters: “And the house you live in will never fall down if you pity the stranger who stands at the gate.”

Echoes of the Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 resound, but they’re crafted masterfully into unique phrases of the songwriter’s own making. Words to live by, every one.

Similarly, Make Way for the Lady (Dream Street Rose) is a jazz-rooted, whimsical compilation of aphorisms (“makin’ hay with no gravy/brings all the good folk down”) for talking the narrator out of a dark place “when a blue mood get’s rollin’.”

Among the bits of wisdom here we find the singer advising, “Shake hands with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost/the impossible believer/and the heavenly host.”

I love the feel this song gives me when I’m slipping into negativity. “Turn it around,” rings the simple reprise. “Turn it around.”

But it’s not always that simple.

There is something in the human heart that is still “captured” by temptation and sin, and you can’t listen to Lightfoot long without feeling it. The songwriter explores that mystery the plaintive Heaven Help the Devil on the 1982 album Shadows.

“In this land of chance do we know right from wrong?” he asks, pointing out how most of us are well intended, not wishing to hurt anyone, even willing to help those in need, but for all that, “we have been captured by the thieves of the night/held for ransom if you please.”

This, it seems to me, is profoundly biblical, explaining without solving the inescapable difficulty of human existence. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” Saint Paul wrote to the Romans. And in this very human struggle in which the gift of freedom is so often used for destructive, selfish ends, “Heaven help the devil, may he have a few unpleasant memories.”

In Race among the Ruins on Summertime Dream, the singer advises a person obsessively pursuing a dream world while leaving broken hearts and friendships in its aftermath, “If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon.”

Nine years later (1985), Lightfoot wrote the confessional Forgive Me Lord, a song he didn’t record until 1999. “I played it for years in concert,” he writes in Songbook’s liner notes, “and listening to it now, I’m sort of surprised it never made into onto a record before this.”

But a Youtube clip from a 2001 concert reveals that Lightfoot felt that the song was ill-timed, since a few years after he’d written it, a famous televangelist’s dramatic confession after scandal included the words “I have sinned.”

“I didn’t want people to think I got the idea from him,” he quips.

Forgive Me Lord is a song for anyone who ever wanted to begin again, and that means it’s for everyone. Indeed, Lightfoot turns from “me” to “us” in the last stanza:

Make my world a better place to be
Remove these chains and set me free
Give my face a different point of view
Forgive us Lord if we run to you.

All I can say to that is “amen.”

Then there’s the heartfelt cover of Bob Dylan’s spiritual masterpiece Ring them Bells on the 1993 album Waiting for You. This song has been one of my favorites since I first heard it on Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy. “Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man’s son/Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one.”

“Ring them bells for the chosen few/who will judge the many when the game is through.” Lightfoot’s interpretation of this well-covered song is clean, bright and hopeful.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read my Mind includes ample footage of Dylan and Lightfoot together. When Lightfoot passed away, Dylan said that he had died “without ever having made a bad song.”

Hard to argue with that assessment.

I often feel grateful for having come of age in an era of great songwriters, Dylan and Lightfoot at the top of the list. Their words often “say it for me” when I’m searching to express a feeling. They evoke contemplation in quiet moments. They remind me of solid truths and longings bigger than the human heart understand.

Just because they’re beyond our understanding doesn’t mean they don’t point to something real.

So it’s not surprising that when I first heard of Gordon Lightfoot’s passing, his own voice immediately rose in my memory. “Mr. Rock of Ages, I’m a part of you now…and my future is in your hands.”

The compass needle may waver as it will, but for my money, that line points true north.


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You might also enjoy John Stewart, Mother Teresa and the Power of Song in the Field Where the Angels Dance.

Episode 61 of The Rhino Podcast features interviews with Gordon Lightfoot and Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind producers Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe.

My favorite Gordon Lightfoot cover: Jalan Crossland’s Don Quixote. I’ve seen Crossland perform this live and I so hope Lightfoot got to hear this virtuoso interpretation of his genius.

What’s your favorite Gordon Lightfoot song?

Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash.

4 thoughts on “Lesser Known Lightfoot: Glimpses of the Singer’s Spiritual Side

    1. Thank you Dan! I can definitely return the sentiment. Whenever I talk to you about him, I come away with new windows into those songs!

  1. Great article, Peggy; makes me want to go back and listen to all those songs again. My favorite is The Edmund Fitzgerald; having been to Lake Superior so many times it captures the haunting power and beauty of the deep. Lightfoot always reminded me that our God is an understanding God who wants us to approach him and that made him an evangelist in my mind.

    1. I love that, Tim! The documentary is just rich with all those great songs and I’m glad that’s the focus they chose, but you learn a lot about his behind-the-stage life too. I watched it through Amazon. I’ve been to Superior twice when my son lived there and I could not get “The Wreck” as I heard him call it in performance out of my mind. Didn’t want to either. Always wondered if Lightfoot was familiar with the Hopkins poem “The Wreck of the Deustchland.” Wouldn’t be surprised!

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