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Old 03-29-2014, 07:07 PM   #11
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,624
Default Lightfoot and Chapin-Peterborough article-7-2013


Hanging on a wall in the Ol’ Miners’ Diner at The Ovens Natural Park in Nova Scotia there is a picture that has fascinated me for years. On the left is an ebullient Harry Chapin in high-collared open-necked white shirt and loose black vest. Beside him is a shorter, slightly heavier and mustachioed fellow, cigarette dangling from his mouth. The arms of both men reach down, hands turned outward as if to acknowledge a round of applause.

To my surprise that second performer turns out to be Gordon Lightfoot. He wears a tight-fitting tee-shirt with only the letters “Maw[…]” visible because of his twisted torso. I had always imagined that the second figure was Harry’s bass guitarist and back-up singer, “Big” John Wallace, who still plays in a number of Chapin concerts each year, including the annual mid-August celebration of the Chapin Family and Harry’s music at The Ovens.

There is a fascinating back-story to the occasion that brought Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot together. It was a benefit concert held to raise funds for World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger), the charity that Harry Chapin had co-founded in 1975. The date of the concert was 17 October 1977 and “Gordie,” as Harry’s brother Steve, who owns The Ovens, still fondly calls him, had hastened to Detroit to participate in Harry’s special charitable concert. A decade earlier Lightfoot’s memorable song, Black Day in July had commemorated the “Motor City madness” of that ugly summer when racial unrest spiraled out of control in the city streets, leading to over 40 deaths and the torching of many buildings in the downtown core. In its disturbing wake, Martin Luther King was assassinated the following spring.

The surprise of seeing Chapin and Lightfoot so comfortably together in that photo has stuck in my imagination. In 1977 they were both in their prime and were on their respective ways to becoming musical legends in their own countries. Lightfoot’s album, Summertime Dream had appeared a year earlier (it included The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) while, in 1977, Harry’s double album, Dance Band on the Titanic was released. In the midst of heavy performance schedules, they were continuing to write the songs that would help to define their generation.

Four years later, at the age of 39, Harry would be dead, the victim of a truck that rear-ended his Volkswagen on the Long Island Expressway. Gordon Lightfoot would continue on with his impressive career until, in 2002, a life-threatening stomach ailment grounded him for over a year and left him a weaker though still-game performer. Some of you will remember that his first public appearance after his illness was in the fall of 2004 with Ronnie Hawkins in aid of the Peterborough flood victims. Now in his 75th year, he has solidified his reputation as one of Canada’s greatest songwriters.

Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot have much in common. Born within four years of each other (Lightfoot is the older), they were guitarists and songwriters in the folk, folk-rock and country traditions. Inspired by Pete Seeger and groups like The Weavers, they wrote out of a deep desire to create personalized narratives rooted in their own national experiences. And while they became major figures in the music scene of their own country, each of them developed an appreciative audience across the border—Harry in Canada and “Gord” in the U.S.A.

That Detroit concert must have been an amazing experience; it can be seen now as a moment that played a part in defining a whole generation. Advertised as “Four Together,” its lead participants were all on the way to becoming musical legends as singer-songwriters – John Denver and James Taylor joined Chapin and Lightfoot that night to raise funds for World Hunger Year. Though each sang independently from his personal songbook, they had a wee bit of time that afternoon to work up a couple of collaborations for the audience.

On YouTube I was able to find both the evening’s impressive set list and two bootleg audio numbers from the concert itself. The first has Gordon Lightfoot singing An Irish Lullaby with backup from John Denver (sung in honour of Bing Crosby, the venerable crooner who had died a few days before); the second is Harry Chapin’s very popular Taxi with John Denver singing the falsetto part usually performed by “Big” John Wallace. As was his wont, Chapin encouraged lively audience participation as the verses of Taxi unfolded. As far as I can figure, other than being photographed together, Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot did not collaborate on that rare occasion. Still, they were keen admirers of each other’s work. In that same spirit, Bob Dylan deeply respected the songs of both men.

To think of Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot together is to invite comparisons across the f49th parallel. How do they stack up with audiences now? Who is the better narrative singer and who is the better balladeer? How can you measure the worth of Cat in the Cradle and Mr. Tanner against Early Morning Rain or The Canadian Railroad Trilogy?

Better to remember them both for what they have given us and to keep their respective achievements alive. That photo at The Ovens has allowed me to treasure them together and to wish I had been there to see and hear them in Detroit in October 1977.

Michael Peterrman is professor emeritus of English literature at Trent University
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