Lightfoot steps on stage at Massey Hall one last time

Folk icon celebrates Canada with patriotic tunes

Gordon Lightfoot performs at Massey Hall on July 1. 
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Gordon Lightfoot took the stage at Massey Hall for the 40th year in a row this Canada Day, an honour fit for an artist who has been writing songs about this country for the last 60 years.

I had the privilege to be there. 

With the hall scheduled to close for a two-year maintenance project, this might be the 79-year-old singer’s last performance at his favourite hometown venue. 

A sea of red and white clad fans greeted Lightfood, all of them shouting, “We love you Gord!” throughout the show. 

For me, he’s Canada’s greatest songwriter. As I sat in the crowd at Massey Hall, and listened to Lightfoot sing patriotic   tunes, I could sense the magnitude of his contribution to Canadian culture.

I started listening to Lightfoot because Bob Dylan cited him as one of his mentors. When I first heard songs like “Steel Rail Blues” and “Sundown” I could immediately see why—it felt as if these songs transcended music and popular culture. 

I appreciated them as literary works.  

Through his lyrics, Lightfoot explores and challenges Canada’s national identity—it’s this lyricism that earned him one of Canada’s highest musical honours: the 1997 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.  

With the band only covering about half of the Hall’s massive stage—and his grandchildren seated in the front row—it felt as if Lightfoot was playing to friends at his home as he played classics such as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and “If You Could Read My Mind”—reminding the audience of the depth of his repertoire.

 “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—which Lightfoot sang alone and unabridged—tells the story of the ship, The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior in 1975. 

As Lightfoot sang, “Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings, in the rooms of her ice-water mansion,” fans not only relished in Lightfoot’s soft voice, but also couldn’t help feel a sense of pride in their country as they listened to a Canadian musical legend, at a nationally-renowned venue, on Canada Day.

Before the accolades, Lightfoot emerged as part of the folk-music revival, when it dominated the popular music scene in the 1960s. It was through the lyrics of Canadian musicians like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell that Canada’s awe-inspiring landscapes, bustling cities, and quaint rural towns became known around the world. 

Lightfoot and his contemporaries even inspired the wave of Canadian rock music that subsumed the folk movement. Major rock artists like the Tragically Hip and The Rheostatics still wrote patriotically about Canada, and captured the attention of the nation. 

For me, the importance of folk music is its ability to impact social movements such as the American Civil Rights movement. 

In the words of musician John Lyndon, the folk musician’s ability to push a social or political agenda made the genre “the genuine roots of culture.”

Even as a lifelong folk fan, I'm hard-pressed to explain the captivating appeal of this music—as folk musician Phil Ochs once said, a good folk song with a strong message can have a deeper impact and reach more people than a thousand rallies. 

Lightfoot's “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” is one of those songs. Its genius is that it layers enormously complicated social issues, like the exploitation of foreign workers and Indigenous peoples atop an incredibly straightforward chord progression. The tune is somehow impossibly complicated yet beautifully simple.  

Perhaps the once loud voice of the folk musician, which has historically brought unity in times of political turbulence, is again in need of reviving.

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