Album Speculation: Gordon Lightfoot – Sit Down Young Stranger

Album Speculation: Gordon Lightfoot – Sit Down Young Stranger

 

During long summer car rides as a kid, Gordon Lightfoot’s Magnum Opus If You Could Read My Mind would frequently play on the radio. Right from the opening verse; “If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts could tell” I would find myself tapping my foot and singing along quietly in the backseat. The song had lyrics which interjected the listener into a story of fading love, which correlated to the disintegration of Gordon’s first marriage. As an eight-year-old, themes of divorce remained foreign. As a grown man, the song has since taken on heightened meaning, and remains a song I turn up the volume on and sing along to every chance it plays on the radio. 

Gordon’s first album was released in 1966, simply titled Lightfoot! which had been originally recorded in 1964. Right out of the gate, Gordon’s uncanny storytelling abilities were clearly showcased. The album produced the balled, For Lovin’ Me, considered an early favorite among many Gordon Lightfoot fans. Country music legend, Marty Robbins, also recorded his own rendition of Ribbon of Darkness in 1965, which was written by Lightfoot, also featured on Gordon’s debut album. The song would become a number one country hit for Robbins, his eleventh to that point in time. 

Fast forward to the year 1970, Gordon released his fifth studio album, Sit Down Young Stranger on the Reprise record label. The album would later be renamed If You Could Read My Mind following the success of the song. The album would go on to become Lightfoot’s best-selling original album, having reached #12 on the Billboard 200 Chart. Along with If You Could Read My Mind, Lightfoot also released his own rendition of the Kris Kristofferson penned hit Me and Bobby McGee. Lightfoot’s rendition brought a folk element which was lacking in Kris and Janis Joplin’s versions. 

In 1963, Gordon had married Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, a Swedish woman whom Gordon would have two children with. Gordon’s time away from home touring, had led to him becoming unfaithful to his wife. Around the time when Gordon was recording Sit Down Young Stranger he had penned If You Could Read My Mind in reflection of his failing marriage, which would ultimately end in divorce in 1973. The song would become arguably Lightfoot’s most universally acclaimed and has since been covered by over 100 musicians and bands – let’s take a detour from the album for a minute.  

Gordon had a string of affairs. One such affair in the early seventies was with infamous Canadian groupie Cathy Smith, who had been sentenced to prison for involuntary manslaughter in relation to the overdose death of John Belushi in 1982, after she had injected the comedian with a lethal dose of heroin and cocaine. Known as a speedball.  

Anyway, Gordon and Cathy had started fucking around as early as 1970 – which coincides with the release of Sit Down Young Stranger. Could it be possible that Cathy Smith played a role in Gordon’s relationship with Brita coming to an end? Yes, since his infidelities at this time are what ultimately decimated the marriage. Could it also be possible that Gordon’s infidelity with Cathy, in particular, led to cracks within the foundation of him and Brita’s relationship, which ultimately led to him penning one of the greatest written Canadian songs of all time, being If You Could Read My Mind? It is possible, but I can’t confirm it, and found no sources which could. 

Cathy’s turbulent relationship with Gordon, however, did lead the master songwriter to pen and later release the massively popular 1974 hit, Sundown. Their relationship was chaotic, filled with alcohol and drug use, and caused Gordon to become extremely jealous. He even fired Canadian bluegrass duo, The Good Brothers, who were an opening act for Lightfoot, for flirting with Cathy. Their relationship ultimately came to an end in the mid-seventies, with Cathy Smith passing away in August of 2020. 

Gordon Lightfoot’s impact on music has been immense. He sold millions of records, was a heavy inspiration to countless musicians, including the legendary Bob Dylan and fellow folk legend, John Prine, and forever changed the landscape of Canadian folk music.  

Although The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has done a lot of Canadian musicians dirty, ignoring the many accomplishments of musicians such as Gordon Lightfoot and The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot has been heavily recognized for his contribution to music in his native Canada. In total, Gordon had been awarded 16 Juno awards, and was inducted into the Canadian music hall of fame in 1986. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 in New York. To date, this has been the most significant international award to recognize his contribution to music.  

With themes which are relatable to both western and eastern Canadians, such as working the railroad, heard within his 1967 Canadian Railroad Trilogy, a song which had been commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to celebrate the Canadian Centennial that same year. Or an international hit such as The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which highlighted the tragic death of 29 crew members aboard a shipping vessel in 1975 on Lake Superior. Lightfoot’s music remains as relevant today as it was when he entered the music scene nearly sixty years ago. 

On May 1st, 2023, Gordon Lightfoot peacefully passed away at the age of 84. Although his death was tragic, the musician did more to change the scope of Canadian music then most could ever hope, and until the very end, Gordon remained close to his roots and performed straight to the end. His last album, Solo, was released in 2020, indicating an undying passion for music, even into his eighties. 

By now, I am very aware how much I strayed from the initial path of writing an album speculation on Sit Down Young Stranger. For this, I do apologize, as this has since diverged into a retrospective on Gordon’s life and covered portions of multiple albums by the famed musician. But how can you talk specifically about one album, when his life and discography as a whole had such an immense impact on music. I’ll try to keep things more centred the next time around. As for the time being, thanks for all that you did for music, and all that you were, Gordon Lightfoot. Although you may no longer be here in the flesh, your spirit will remain every time one of your song play on the radio, or every time a cinephile puts the needle to one of your incredible albums (many of which are currently available through Mile High Vinyl). For this, we all thank you and Canada owes you an incredibly debt to your artistic contribution. Rest in peace, Gordon. Gone but never forgotten. 

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