Earlier this month in Toronto, a master class in songwriting was offered up by two of the greatest Gords in Canada – folk icon Gordon Lightfoot and Tragically Hip rocker Gord Downie in the inaugural concert of a new six-part series, If You Could Read My Mind, named for Lightfoot’s 1970 breakthrough song.
Sponsored by the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, the two Gords perform stripped-down versions of some of their work and discuss their craft in an intimate setting that was perfect for the animated, funny, revelatory and – at times – touching discussion between the two men and host Laurie Brown.
It was hard not to notice Downie’s admiration of the 71-year-old Lightfoot – whose "austerity and economy of words" he praised – as The Hip’s lead singer got downright emotional early in the show which was being taped for later broadcast on CBC Radio 2 on Easter Sunday.
From a Canoe article on the concert, here are some quotes about songwriting provided by the Gords at their concert earlier this month:
[T]he Orillia, Ont-born Lightfoot said he first began writing songs in Grade 12 – his first ever was a novelty tune called The Hula Hoop Song which was inspired by a Life magazine cover – and was inspired more seriously later by Dylan but admitted that "recording was like going to the dentist."
He said he still has a technical rehearsal with his band every Friday to keep his guitar skills up.
When Downie asked Lightfoot about dealing with writer’s block, the onetime drinker didn’t miss a beat: "Alcohol."
Downie, who hails from Kingston, Ont., couldn’t remember the first tune he wrote but said he first sang at a house party – The Doors’ opus The End of all things – "trying to infuse it with 15-year-old angst."
Later, he recalled, he and his Hip bandmates hung out at The Prince George Hotel catching travelling blues legends like John Lee Hooker in concert but Downie admitted he didn’t learn to play the acoustic guitar until he was twenty.
Both men agreed their songwriting had been hugely inspired by nature over the years, helping to forge the Canadian identity, with Lightfoot revealing he went on massive canoe trips in Northern Ontario and Quebec, sometimes a month at a time.
The only problem – and it’s a good one to have – the CSHF now faces is how to make the next five concerts as entertaining as Thursday night’s premiere deluxe edition.
Lightfoot and Downie’s natural chemistry set the bar high.
May the Muse stay with you Gords…