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Old 03-20-2021, 05:14 PM   #1
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Default Interview-Dec.2020-Steve Waxman-

Audio and transcript @

Creating Songs With Gordon Lightfoot - (Steve Waxman. Dec.8, 2020)

Rush's Geddy Lee called Gordon Lightfoot a timeless songwriter. Robbie Robertson of The band calls Gordon Canadaís national treasure. His longtime friend, Bob Dylan, inducted Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame calling him one of his favourite songwriters and has often been quoted saying that when he hears a Gordon Lightfoot song, he wishes it would go on forever.

Early Morning Rain, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Carefree Highway, Sundown, If You Could Read My Mind, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The list goes on and on and on. Gordon Lightfoot is Canada's greatest songwriter. Period. His professional career began over 6o years ago and he's influenced countless popular artists over the years and heís still at it. In 2020 he released Solo, his twenty-first album and heís hoping to get back out on tour as soon as the COVID pandemic is taken care of. I reached Gordon over the phone to see if I could get some insight into his songwriting process.

* * *
Steve Waxman: After all of these years, is songwriting still fun for you?

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, you know, itís fun if you see that it's going somewhere that you like. Then you think about Ďhow would this go over in a crowd.í And so, you think about that for a while and if it seems like it might have a chance that it might bite, you go ahead and finish it. And some of it you donít finish. But youíve got to at least know that theyíre going to like it. That theyíre going to be able to make sense out of it. And even then youíll only use one or two songs off an album. You get the best ones. The ones that have the best forward momentum.

Steve Waxman: How do you determine that?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, thatís the feel. You feel like itís got a beginning, that itís logical and has an ending. You know, itís got a bridge and various kinds of sections, differing sections that you learn to come up with through the years that you can relate to other work that youíre doing. You know, I have one song that has about five different sections in it. That would be the ďCanadian Railroad Trilogy,Ē I guess.

I also like to make sense of what Iím saying in my lyrics. Anything that doesnít make sense, I canít deal with that one. I want people to be able to make sense of it. I want them to be able to relate to it. I want to be able to get in contact with them when Iím performing these tunes on stage because everything I write has a possibility of us doing it on stage. But there is a lot of them I sometimes say that we should be doing on stage, which Iím not. But, we have so much good stuff that weíre sort of settled down to the cream of the crop, sort to speak. We work with about forty-two to forty-five songs most of the time and for a show weíd never need more than twenty-six tunes for a two hour show or twenty-four for a ninety-minute show in a casino. And we try to keep it all in rotation around the twelve major which we consider to be the twelve or fourteen songs that always should get done. People would get disappointed if they did not hear those twelve to fourteen important ones. And the rest is all in rotation around that. That has to be sorted out beforehand. I have about four different change ups of shows that Iím using right now.

Steve Waxman: Do you consider songwriting a creative outlet or work?

Gordon Lightfoot: Yes, I do. I consider it a creative outlet. I started a long time ago. I learned how to write music because I was writing songs and I didnít know how to write music down. I went and took a course. I took a notation course.

Steve Waxman: Where did you do that?

Gordon Lightfoot: I went Stateside. I persuaded my parents to allow me to go to this school in the States where they taught a jazz course, a notation course that was based on the keyboard. I stayed there for a year. And, as fate would have it, one of the very first jobs I got when I got back to Canada was a job as a copyist, a person who copies orchestra parts for scores. And started thinking ĎJeez, Iím sure glad I took that course.í I wanted to learn how to write lead sheets because you had to be able to write lead sheets to register the stuff with the Library of Congress in Washington. You had to write it out. The music, the chords and the lyrics. Those three things. You had to commit those to manuscript. I didnít know how to do any of that in high school yet. I was writing songs in high school but I couldnít commit them to paper. In those days you had to. Nowadays, all you need is a CD. You donít have to write them out anymore. There are a lot of people that write great songs that really donít know how to write music. And that is not to call them short because Iím not doing that. Iím not doing that at all. But a lot of songwriters donít actually know how to write music. Itís fine by me. Itís side by each. Itís whatever you need to do. I went and took a notation course so that I could do it because it was my way of registering material and that was back in 1962, 1963. Way, way back then when I started doing it. I had 12 or 15 songs by this point and I was building up a little catalogue. Itís really good to have a deal and I wanted to be able to write all of this stuff down and went and learned how to do it.

Steve Waxman: How old were you when you started writing songs?

Gordon Lightfoot: I would have been in grade 12. I would have been 17.

Steve Waxman: How did you go about figuring out how to write a song?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, I write a topical song. It was about a fad that was catching on just after the Korean War. The hula hoop. I called it ďThe Hula Hoop Song.Ē Itís about a guy thatís trying to hula hoop. His kids are all doing it just great. All his kids, they all know how to do it but he canít learn how to hula hoop. He just canít learn. I still canít learn how to hula hoop. I, personally. I read an article about it in a magazine. I said ĎJeez, let me go write a topical song with this hula hoop craze. It was the same time that Chubby Checker invented The Twist. Do you remember that era?

Steve Waxman: Itís before my time but I do know what youíre talking about, yeah.

Gordon Lightfoot: I went to his club one time too. It was in New York but thatís another story. In the meantime, I wrote this topical song about Hula-Hooping. About this father that canít learn how to do it. Heís terribly frustrated about it. All of his children are doing it and he canít and that was the tone of the whole song. I was so into it that I had just learned how to drive and I borrowed my fatherís car and brought it into Toronto and played it for the people at BMI Canada, the music publisher. I had to find out where to go and who to see and do everything. I was very entrepreneurial about this. And they said ďLeave your name with the receptionist and weíll call you.Ē

Steve Waxman: And did they?

Gordon Lightfoot: And I did. I kept submitting tunes and found out that they were connected to Leeds Music and when I got working with Leeds Music I got working with an agent called Billy OíConnor Enterprises here in Toronto and they found out that I was also a performer, not just a songwriter and they started booking me to play in clubs and bars and nightclubs.

Steve Waxman: What year are you talking about that they started booking you?

Gordon Lightfoot: 1962.

Steve Waxman: Was ďThe Hula Hoop SongĒ a fully realized song for you?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, I certainly remember the song. I often tell people that they have to waterboard me to play it. But, I know the whole thing from start to finish. I use some language at the end of the song where the people at BMI Canada said ďYou shouldnít use words like that in songs.Ē I used the word slob. I used the word slob and the publishing guy said ďThatís actually not a very good word to put into a lyric.Ē And other than the four-letter word, I thought it was okay. ďĎCause I guess Iím just a slob and Iím gonna lose my job Ďcause Iím hula hula hoopiní all the time.Ē I thought it was okay. ďI guess Iím just a slob and Iím gonna lose my job Ďcause Iím hula hula hoopiní all the time,Ē and that was the last line as he was trying to catch up to his children. And I thought that was just the neatest little idea. His response was ďYou shouldnít use that word.Ē That was his advice. He liked the song. That was a good try.

part 2 - next post
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Old 03-20-2021, 05:15 PM   #2
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Default Re: Interview-Dec.2020-Steve Waxman-

There goes my hoop upon the floor /

I guess it’s spun about a hundred times or more /

The hoop has got me where it wants me and I’m slowly going nuts /

I see the kids on the street getting the best of me /

I’m really beat /

I used to be a hero to my kids but now I’m nothing but a square /

‘Cause I can’t hula hoop at all

Then comes the bridge. The publisher said to me “Keep writing, Gordon. We’re impressed that you’ve written a topical song because we’re always looking for topical songs. Not just love songs. We’re not just looking for the heart-throb tunes. We’ve got an eye out for topical songs too. If you do any more of this kind of work, call the secretary and come in and see us.” So, that was exactly what I did. I wrote some more songs and a few months later, there I was again.

Steve Waxman: When you wrote “The Hula Hoop Song,” did you write the lyrics and then come up with the melody?

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. Oh, it’s got a melody. Sure.

Steve Waxman: I understand that. What I want to know is did you have the lyrics first and then figure out a melody to go on top of that?

Gordon Lightfoot: No. I just got out my guitar and I wrote the darn thing. I was in grade 12. You see, I went and got a guitar. I was taking piano lessons at the time. It was a good thing that I had a knowledge of the keyboard too. I’m not a pianist but I do know the keyboard. But for this particular day, I got out my guitar and I sat down with the guitar and I wrote that tune. I got really creative. It didn’t take long either. I said ‘Maybe I can do this. But can I make everything different.’ So the next fifteen or eighteen songs I wrote I tried to make every song completely different and I only had five keys to work with. But still, all the songs had to be different. So they were all set to these different tempos. There are about seven or eight different kinds of modal directions in which I could go from at that point in time. I could write about several different topics. It could be love. It could be travel. I used to have all of these things written down. There were fifteen things. War. Relationships. Everything. Ships. I wrote a lot of sea shanties. About five of them. I remember the Springhill Mine disaster that occured here in Canada many years ago. I wrote a lot of songs about miners and the danger that was involved with mining.

Steve Waxman: The way you write songs, has it changed over the years? Or is it still the same process for you? You pick up a guitar or you sit down at the piano and the song just comes to you?

Gordon Lightfoot: All I know is that they’re all different and they’re like snowflakes. There are some things that are a similarity of approach like when I have a certain tuning that I use, what I call F tuning on one of my 12-strings from which I produced about five tunes using that. But even though they’re all in the same key they’re all different. They’re completely different. There’s the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Early Morning Rain,” “The Ring Necked Loon.” Those are my three favourite ones and they’re all in the same key but they’re all completely different. So I try to avoid using the same structural way about going about it.

Steve Waxman: Do you keep notes of things that you overhear and write things down later?

Gordon Lighfoot: Yeah. I wrote something down on my car contract one time - one of my best tunes. I was driving from Flagstaff to Phoenix one night. About one o’clock in the morning after a show, with my bass player, and a sign flashed by and it said “Carefree Highway.” So I wrote it down on a contract because there was nothing else handy to write on and I left it in the damn glove compartment of the car! Fortunately, it made such an impression on my mind that five days later when I actually started thinking about ‘what was it? Yeah, “Carefree Highway.” Oh! Eureka! I have found it.’ I wrote that song in about ten minutes. That’s the way it goes.

Steve Waxman: Okay. So with that, you’ve got the title. I presume that you looked at it as a title. What’s the process then? Are you starting to imagine what “Carefree Highway” means to you?

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. And then you start to go back to the beginning where your starting point is going to be and then you start thinking about ‘what would this person be thinking about out there on the road and homesick as hell.’ I kinda know how that felt because I used to get that way. And what are they going to think about first? They’re going to think about their mum and dad. And that gets it rolling right there. They’re gonna start thinking ‘how are the old folks doin’?’ And then the whole thing takes on its own momentum. You just carry it on through and then the title just drops into the middle of the whole thing while you’re doing it. The title finds its own positioning as you go along. I’ve had that happen lots of times. It happened with “Sundown” and that was one of my best tunes. I had a title and nowhere to put it and then ‘boom,’ it just drops into the order. That’s a song about slippin’ and slidin’ around…”Sundown”...slippin’ and slidin’, I like to call it.

Steve Waxman: What does that mean?

Gordon Lightfoot: It means that you’re feeling a little jealousy. A little stroke of jealousy. Like your girlfriend might not be 100% with you.

Steve Waxman: I’d like to tell you that my brother, who’s 8 years older than me, had a couple of your records back when I was a kid and “Sundown” was the first song of yours that I would ask him to play on repeat over and over again. I must have been 10. 8, 9, 10.

Gordon Lightfoot: Isn’t that amazing.

Steve Waxman: You know how kids are? When they hear something that they like they want to hear it over and over again. That’s what “Sundown” was for me. And then “Cotton Jenny” was the second one.

Gordon Lightfoot: Oh really? I’ll get to that one in a minute. But, it’s about rubbin’ another man’s rhubarb. It’s about, as Jack Nicholson so well put it in one of his movies “Don’t rub my rhubarb,” kind of a tune, “Sundown”. The other one that you just mentioned, we had to be careful with that one now. I had to take it out of my show because I don’t want to be accused of being a racist. And that’s one of my best tunes.

Steve Waxman: Now, you’ll have to excuse my ignorance. I sing songs but I have a hard time paying attention to what they actually mean. So, what was it that might be racist about “Cotton Jenny”?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, if you’re talking about “Cotton Jenny,” you’re talking about people picking cotton. You’ve got to be careful of what you say these days in a song or whatever it is. I’ve had experiences where I’ve noticed that it’s not a good idea to play it.

Steve Waxman: Obviously, as a little kid, I didn’t pick up on that at all. I just thought that it was a sweet, actually sexy song.

Gordon Lightfoot: I know. And that’s the thing you see. That’s what it’s meant to be. That’s what it was always meant to be.

Steve Waxman: Okay, at least I got that part of it right as a kid.

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. Yeah.

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Old 03-20-2021, 05:16 PM   #3
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Steve Waxman: If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about “If You Could Read My Mind.” When you talk about being able to write and perform songs that are relatable to people and make sense to them, this song touches a lot of people because you say things in this song that people just don’t know how to say. They don’t know how to put these kinds of words together to say the kinds of things and feel the kinds of things you feel in this song. I understand that this is a song you write when things weren’t going well with your wife at the time and I’m just wondering, for you, how did it begin?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, I was leaving the house and going to an empty house to work. And one afternoon I was working in this empty house in the middle of a - I guess you could call it an emotional trauma. And, all of a sudden, out popped that tune and it came so easily and it only took a couple of hours. And it went on the record and nobody even knew that it was going to emerge. It came out as a single after the record had been out about five months and stalled. The record had already gotten an anchor. My album had gotten an anchor by that point. That’s what they call it when it gets to number forty and stops. And we were getting ready for number two when all of a sudden it got added at a Top 40 station in Seattle, Washington and all of a sudden, there it was. Next thing it got added in San Francisco. The record company got me on an airplane and they flew me out to the west coast to do interviews. Then they started playing it at KNX in LA. It was a total surprise to everyone.

Steve Waxman: When you say that you were able to write the song in just a couple of hours…

Gordon Lightfoot: Oh, some of them take days. Sometimes you’re working on a song for weeks. Honest to god. I’m telling you, the ones that happen quickly are far in the minority. Some of the ones, really the best ones are written very spontaneously in very little time.

Steve Waxman: What I’m saying is that the words are so perfect for the sentiment…

Gordon Lightfoot: I don’t know how I found that stuff. It was just so good and there it was. I picked it out of the air and there it was. And probably some of the business about the wishing well and stuff like that, you know, lots of people talked about that stuff in songs. And bringing the movie aspect into it and the idea of actors acting, I’d done that in some of my other tunes. I’d envisioned actors acting out these tunes. It’s really weird the way it goes.

Steve Waxman: Was there much rewriting that you had to do while you were putting this together?

Gordon Lightfoot: That one, really, was just about done when I got done with it. I had a number of them like that, right back at the beginning when I first came out of serious contracts. Like when I got signed by the Witmark publishers in New York. I mean, the pressure was then on. And I had a record deal too and having the record deal and the publishing deal made me get my nose to the grindstone. I sat right down and got to work on this stuff. You see, we needed the material. We needed the songs. I had a whole repertoire of tunes by other people. I wanted to write my own songs. I wanted to be like Bob Dylan. I wanted to write my own tunes.

Steve Waxman: So, then how do you feel when someone like Bob Dylan tells the world how much they admire you as a songwriter?

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, he’s probably just having a little tongue-in-cheek problem. I was part central for him and a lot of his people here in Toronto back in the 70s when they were in town which was quite often. And the big deal in ‘75, the Rolling Thunder Revue, we had a big party here at my house in Toronto. It was a great time.

“If You Could Read My Mind”? I don’t know. I was in an empty house and I was going through some kind of trauma and, all of a sudden, there was the song.

Steve Waxman: Do you get self-conscious at all showing a song like this to your wife?

Gordon Lightfoot: No. No, I don’t. It’s not an offensive tune. Not like “For Lovin’ Me”. I’d never write another one like that. It’s an innocent song that didn’t have anything in it that’s offensive. You know, I try to avoid that. I learned that very early.

Steve Waxman: Okay, but there is a line in “If You Could Read My Mind” where you say “The feelings that you lack.”

Gordon Lightfoot: Well, that should have been “we.” My daughter made me change that for on stage and I did that quite promptly. She said “It’s a two way street, daddy. Daddy, it’s a two way street.” And I said “You know, you’re right.” When I do it on stage, it’s mutual. “The feelings that we lack.” How handy it was to get myself out of that one.

Steve Waxman: Okay. So, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” That one started with a newspaper article, right?

Gordon Lightfoot: It started with hearing about it on television three hours after it happened. I was working...well, I was alone again. I was in a different empty house. I used to find empty houses that were standing for sale and take my little chair and table in there and go and write tunes in houses that were standing empty. And I was in another empty house and it was a very windy night and I went down and went down for a coffee and it was on television. This huge ship had just sunk on Lake Superior. And that is what got my engine started in writing a song about that because I had some chords and I had a melody that I was always trying to find something for. I was trying to find a lyric. All I had was the chord, the melody and no lyric and that became the lyric. I added that in the mix and I worked on it and it took me a couple of weeks. I worked on it all through the month of January. I knew that we were going in the studio. I knew that it was good enough to go down. I knew it was good enough to be on the record anyway. I didn’t know how long it was going to be. Later on I went down to, as months went by, or the next week, I saw an article in one of the news magazines. So I carried on, in my entrepreneurial way, to the newspaper office of the Toronto Telegram and got the back copies because we had no computers yet at this point or anything like that. I got the back copies and noticed that they spelled the name “Edmund” wrong. They spelled it with an “o”. And I said ‘That’s it. I’m writing it. That’s it. I’m going home. I’m going to write this.’ And I went home and I got started. And I wrote it because they spelled the name wrong in the headline.

Steve Waxman: It doesn’t take much to set you off,huh?

Gordon Lightfoot: I said ‘A whole lot of people are going to hear this, so we better do it right.’ I made sure. There was some conjecture, I will admit, in the fourth verse about the old cook and stuff like that and the hatch covers falling down and everything. I answered for that later by the Ladies Committee in Madison, Wisconsin. They didn’t like that line because their boys were on duty. Their boys were on duty when the hatch covers caved in supposedly and they didn’t like hearing it in concert. So I rewrote that line and from that day on I sung the song another thousand times and I did the new line. The new line was “At seven pm it grew dark, it was then I said ‘Fellas it was good to know ‘ya’” And I also raided Woody Guthrie. “So Long, It’s Good To Know ‘Ya” by Woody Guthrie. And they’re all in one line. I got Woody Guthrie into it and I changed the line. Got the hatch covers out of it and whenever I played it in the Great Lakes area from that point on, the Ladies Committee came. They were so happy that their sons were not being blamed for not looking after the hatch covers. And that’s how serious it got. I heard it getting mentioned on a talk show one night. That it was not the hatch covers that caused the ship to sink. It was proven scientifically that it was not the hatch covers that caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to sink.

Steve Waxman: Musically, how much did the band bring to that song?

Gordon Lightfoot: They brought the wind and the water. My steel player and my guitar player. Two brilliant guys. Wonderful guys. Peewee Charles. Terry Clemons. They brought the wind and the water into it with what they played. They brought the storm into it.

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Old 03-20-2021, 05:18 PM   #4
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Steve Waxman: There’s a couple more things I want to talk about. I know that the songs on Solo were songs that you found on a CD. How many years ago was that?

Gordon Lightfoot: That was in around ‘98, right at the turn, 1999. Right at the end of the century. 1999. I did not know that they existed. Of the ten songs that are on there, one of them was done right from square one and that was “Easy Flow” and I wrote that for my lovely wife, Kim, who is my wife now. The others are a group of demos and all that is there is guitar and vocal. And it was during a time before I had any health issues. My playing was good. I was singing better than I ever did. When I played it for Warner Brothers they said “Leave it be or we’re not going to see it for another two years,” because I was getting ready to rewrite the whole thing and do the orchestration and teach it to my band and record it. And, all of a sudden, boom, in comes the pandemic. So it wound up coming out right after the plague came down upon us all.

Steve Waxman: So, had you started performing any of the songs off of this record?

Gordon Lightfoot: If we ever get back to work. You see, we’ve been set back about ninety-five shows here. So everything keeps getting rolled ahead because we’re all still prepared to do this if it’s gonna happen. I will teach them “Easy Flow.” We’ll do “Easy Flow.” Oh no, I’m talking about “Oh So Sweet”. It’s the single that they chose. I’ll teach them that one. It’ll be nice of an arrangement. It’ll be nicely orchestrated. And I’ll pick out a couple of the others. I’m not going to be out there like Ronnie (Hawkins) with his solo tour. We’re all going to be there. We’re going to do the show. I’ll get a couple of tunes off the new record.

Steve Waxman: The song that resonated with me on the record was “Just A Little Bit.”

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, I know. It’s a lot of fun.

Steve Waxman: It’s a lot of fun and, honestly, I would love to hear a punk rock band play this song.

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I could do that one. It’s an easy one to play, too. I could really give it a rock and roll time with that one.

Steve Waxman: I don’t know if I can tell, how many of these songs are you on the twelve-string?

Gordon Lightfoot: Probably three or four of them. The rhythm tunes. Yeah, they’re all twelve-string.

Steve Waxman: Because you’re right, your finger-picking is fantastic on this record.

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, it was good then. I don’t know if I could do it that way now. I can still do it but with that kind of attack and everything, that was before there were any health issues involved. My health issues didn’t start until 2002. And I had one that knocked me out for two-and-a-half years.

Steve Waxman: I remember that very well.

Gordon Lightfoot: They didn’t say anything about that in the documentary at all.

Steve Waxman: Are you writing songs these days?

Gordon Lightfoot: No. I’m practising and keeping my chops up and going on walks. I’m not getting any younger. I’m damn near 82 years old. This was my 21st album. I’m walking and I’m practising because we think that we’re going to get back out there.

Steve Waxman: We all hope so.

Gordon Lightfoot: Everybody does. I’m thinking right now about streaming one out because I have an opportunity to stream one right around the world right now if I want to do it. I’m just considering that right now.

Steve Waxman: With the band.

Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. Sure. With everybody.

* * *
If you want to find out more about Gordon Lightfoot, I suggest reading Nicholas Jennings’ excellent biography simply titled Lightfoot. You should also take time to watch the documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind. Tour info -
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Old 03-21-2021, 05:52 AM   #5
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What a delightful interview! Thanks so much, Char!

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Old 03-23-2021, 10:46 AM   #6
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A Great interview, much insight into his writing. Thanks Char.
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