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Old 01-23-2020, 07:56 PM   #7
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,630
Default Re: Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.

Lightfoot’s website describes him a “storyteller,” and so it interested me to see that story-songs like “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” are rare in his catalog. The term “storyteller” is conventionally used to describe any tunesmith with a literary bent, but rather few of the songs of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young feature characters moving in a story-like progression, from point A to something that feels like an endpoint. Lightfoot, for his part, specializes in mood snapshots. “If You Could Read My Mind,” for example, is a relationship dissection with little reward in the way of hard insight; it’s a trawl through an attic littered with decaying keepsakes. I don’t disbelieve Wikipedia’s claim that “Sundown” is about Lightfoot’s self-destructive jealousy of Cathy Smith, but I receive it as mood. “Early Morning Rain” coheres very well as a linkage of lamentations, but it’s not a story; you know it’s about to end only because the penultimate line is “So I’d best be on my way.” And you can switch verses around on songs like “Cold On The Shoulder,” “Long Thin Dawn,” “Endless Wire,” and one hundred others without much damaging the songs’ meanings or effects.

“The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” is one of the last of its kind, a hit story-song that chronicles a contemporary event. Only eight months elapsed between the 1975 Great Lakes disaster, in which the whole crew of 29 died, and the song’s release. Lightfoot, who was attracted to shipwrecks and had previously written of them in “Marie Christine” and “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” was working fast in a heat of inspiration. He was on well-trodden ground. A generation before, writers like Wilf Carter, Yip Harburg, and Carson Robison spun true headlines into hit-parade gold. Tragic narratives, both reality-based and invented from whole cloth, flourished from the earliest era of recorded popular music (“Down With The Old Canoe”) through the 1950s (“Drunken Driver”) and 1960s (“Leader of the Pack”), and all the way into Lightfoot’s prime (“Run, Joey, Run”), before tailing off. In country music, a genre where neither abject misery nor verbal clarity ever quite falls out of style, they continue to thrive.

But the trendline is etched. If the first part of the 20th century left us scores of popular songs dramatizing the wreck of the Titanic, the Great Depression, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the last half-century has failed to set our feet to tapping with accounts of Jonestown, the 2008 recession, and 9/11. The ever-tightening grip of the radio and recording industries since World War II has gradually come to privilege musical qualities our brains crave in bulk and repetition — polyrhythms, textural density, surprise within parameters — over word-chains with little interpretive flexibility. The computer scientist Stephen Wolfram pioneered a classification scheme for cellular automata — computer-generated arbitrary patterns — that spans four levels of complexity. Class one is constant and class four is chaotic. The middle classes are more interesting: Two comprises patterns that are nested and clearly repetitive, and three has patterns that are a bit messy. Might we say that contemporary popular music productions aspire to patterned structures that, in order to draw us in time after time, ride the edge between these two classes? As an unpopular songwriter and a non-scientist, I put this theory forward with diffidence.

As mentioned, I was surprised by how routinely Lightfoot skirted lyric clichés. But I came to think that his avoidance was sometimes actually problematic, leading to a forced originality, with unseemly word combinations tortured into being: “another chapter in the breeze,” “the kind of girl you’d like to see in a movie or a rosary”; “a rundown jail was the kind of a scene where he’d never fail”; “the sorting of the reach is a thing no school can teach,” “she took me by the will.”

You can see what’s causing some of these distortions: the lure of the rhyme. Writing songs, one repeatedly faces trade-offs of meaningfulness and prosody. In a standoff, you tend to favor what sings well over what states well. Lightfoot is a devotee of — a sucker for, might be more accurate — rhyme, which he reveals by the profusion of gratuitous rhymes — leonine, internal, multi-syllable — in his lines:

“There’s caterers who cater not/And waiters who don’t wait a lot” — “The No Hotel” (2001)

“Like a shellfish in the sea/I’m as selfish as can be” — “Shellfish” (2001)

“His eyes were red, his hopes were dead” — “Home From The Forest” (1967)

“Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms, when they left fully loaded for Cleveland” — “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976)

“As surely as the light of day/Must come to drive the night away” — “Magnificent Outpouring” (1968)

That shellfish one is impressive, isn’t it? And “light of day, night away” — it’s astounding to think that no one beat Lightfoot to that, but as far as I know no one but the Illinois-born 19th-century poet George Sanford Washington did: “See the glorious light of day/O’er the hilltops dawning / Soon ‘twill drive the night away/Oh! behold the morning.” (I used Google to find that obscurity; there’s no reason to think Lightfoot found and lifted it.)

Each of these excellent rhymes weaves a smooth pleasure into a communicative utterance that drives the song along and passes the test of sense. So far, batting one thousand. But the writer seems not to know when to turn it off:

“Don’t linger in time, or finger what’s mine” — “Unsettled Ways” (1968)

“Now that I am old, let me rest a spell/All that I am told, I can never tell” — “A Painter Passing Through” (1998)

“‘Nothing can hurt me,’” a small voice said into a mic/‘Take a hike’” — “Welcome To Try” (1993)

“He walked into a house where love had been misplaced/His chance to waste” — “Summer Side of Life” (1970)

You can, perhaps, tease coherent thoughts from some of these lines, but their violations of idiomatic English — linger “in time”? Where else? “Finger what’s mine”? Eww! — make the writer’s process distractingly visible. He has spied the enticing butterfly of rhyme, off in the tall grass, and has scampered illegally off the marked path to net it.

Careful writing and philosophical diction seem like the coefficients of deeply meaningful ideas, but I’m not sure Lightfoot is a songwriter who is pulled strongly toward “meanings” at all. His songs are studded with thoughts that are untrue:

“The house that you live in will never fall down, if you pity the stranger who stands at your gate.” Tell it to Sharon Tate.

“Sometimes I think it’s a shame, when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain.” Regret over feeling better, while a neat irony, isn’t a known emotion in the human repertoire.

“Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms, when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.” The Edmund Fitzgerald was bound for Detroit.

Other thoughts emerge as unintelligible maxims:

“Be always too soon, be never too fast, at the time when all bets must be laid.”

“Making hay with no gravy brings the good folk down.”

“Never rest until you find what is best to be forgot.”

“Even if you don’t see the end of what lies beyond the bend, don’t stay that way.”

“Be known as a man who will always be candid on questions that do not relate.”

“The power that is stored in this no-man’s-land of chance is the someone who knows what they’re doing.”

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