I'd been wondering lately about legendary Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot, who I knew had been seriously ill. Rooting around for information about the LA-born Russell, I found his road blog, which has a moving reflection about encountering Lightfoot at a tribute concert a few years ago:
Lightfoot had been in hospital for two months recovering from an aneurism. The prognosis aint good. Suddenly the crowd parts, like the Red Sea, and people are shrieking and applauding, and here’s Lightfoot himself, walking through the crowd with a guitar case. Damn, it’s Jesus coming to town on a mule, armed with an antique wooden machine gun. Then he’s on stage, singing an old song. People are weeping. Quite a moment. I had the chills. Lightfoot waves and retreats to a trailer dressing room and disappears. The door slams. The applause is deafening. The only problem is my guitar is in that dressing room, and I’m on stage in 10 minutes for the tribute. I politely knocked on the trailer door, and Lightfoot bid me come in. He was sitting in the corner, grizzled and shaky-legged, smoking a cigarette. He looks at me: « What song you gonna sing out there, kid? » I said, « Your song, ‘For Lovin’ Me’ » He motions toward his guitar with his cigarette. « Here, take my guitar and sing a little for me. I wanna see if you’ve got it right. » (I thought, holy shit. Im auditioning for Gordon Lightfoot. Heavy dues.) I picked up his revered old Martin axe ; it glowed in my hands. My fingers burned. I sang a verse or two of his wonderful song. « That was great,“ he said. „You sing it great, kid. Go out there and kill em“….I handed Lightfoot back his old Martin and glided out of the room. Later on he made a point of coming up to me and telling me how much he enjoyed my version, and my work with Ian Tyson on « Navajo Rug ». I thought back to that old stained set list on his 12 string at Newport in 65. And all the motel rooms and miles and the dignity of the man. A songwriter. It was like running into Homer, and he hands you his lute. A few troubadors still walk among us, with stained set lists taped to the top of their road battered axes. Old guitars soak up every room and song and situation they’ve been involved with…and oh, the stories they can tell. For a moment, in Lightfoot’s dressing room, I knew I was at the center of my universe. I knew why I was a songwriter. Amen.