If Canada had a voice, I always felt that it would sound like Gordon Lightfoot. Sure, everyone has their own idea of which singer/songwriter best represents Canada as a nation, but to me it was always Lightfoot. His music conjures up images that, to me are distinctly Northern Canadian – the towering trees, the rock formations, the endless highways, the sleepy rustic towns, the cozy log cabins on soft snowy nights. The things that my American friends think Canada is supposed to look like, and the sights that leave me breathless when I come across them on my own travels and which I seem to appreciate more and more as I get older. The sights that make me realize just how beautiful nature is, and how the universe is such a beautiful and magical place when far removed from media and the news cicle. This is what Gordon Lightfoot sounds like. It was more than his expressive lyrics which talked about these things. It was a mood. A feeling. Something in the diction of his unique baritone voice. Something in the way he sang.
For me, Gordon Lightfoot also stands out as being one of the first unique voices I could recognize as a music listener. I didn’t know who he was or what the songs were. I don’t even know if I was even old enough to understand the concept that different musicians sang the different songs on the radio. But I knew that Gordon Lightfoot’s voice was different, and I knew I liked it.
I can pinpoint my earliest memory of hearing a Gordon Lightfoot song, but I was so young that I can barely conjure up the memory at all. I was a very small boy. I don’t know how small. I’m guessing two or three, maybe four years old. I’m on St. Joseph’s Island, which is a large Island near Sault Ste. Marie in the heart of Northern, Ontario. That’s where my father was born, and where his family originated. There were Tweedles living on the Island for at least a century, but there aren’t any there anymore. The Island is a beautiful place, primarily rural with tiny towns throughout it. I remember that I was with my father’s younger brother Sandy. I have nothing but the fondest memories of my Uncle Sandy, but I honestly don’t remember spending much one-on-one time with him. In retrospect, I wish I had known him better as an adult. I don’t remember my father being present in this memory, but I’m sure he must have been with us. What I do remember is that Uncle Sandy had taken me to a farm where there were some pigs. I can remember looking over the fence and seeing them all in the pen. This was a unique experience for a city kid like me. There were some other men there too, and they are all laughing and smoking cigareetes with my Uncle near the barn. On one of the barn’s windowsills is a transistor radio and on the radio is Gordon Lightfoot. I can recognize it so distinctly. I don’t know what song he’s singing. It might be “Black Day in July” or “Sundown” or “Carefree Highway” but I can’t even know for sure because I can’t conjure up the memory that clearly. But the things I can remember is my Uncle Sandy, the pigs, the little transistor radio and Gordon Lightfoot’s voice. That’s the power that music has on memory. It can bring you back to the faintest moment in time.
I remember talking to an American friend years ago about Gordon Lightfoot and was shocked to learn that, in the United States, he was really only known for one or two songs. He wasn’t a major recording artist south of the border. It’s astonishing considering how many of his songs have become part of our Canadian identity. It was so obvious to me last night when I learnt that he had died, and social media just lit up with photos, tributes, videos and memories. Everyone on my new feed seemed to pause to remember him. Gordon Lightfoot’s music touched us as a collected people. He really was what Canada sounds like. He was Canada’s voice.