Where and when I grew up, Gordon Lightfoot was everywhere. It was southern Ontario during that decade known as The Sixties.
Canada didn’t escape the tumult and anti-establishment furor that was boiling over on every front across the globe. Into that chaotic mix, Lightfoot’s poetic musings brought a touch of sanity and sureness.
He wrote deeply personal ballads about nostalgia, affection, and relational vagaries that resonated with the front edge of the baby boom. The integrity of his songs crosses generational lines—that first wave of popularity never seems to crest. Lightfoot’s one memorable foray into social commentary was Black Day In July, about Detroit race-riots in the summer of 1967—it contains the tragically true line, “And then the tanks go rolling in to patch things up as best they can. . .” There have been innumerable times watching news coverage of the latest riots or disruptions when Lightfoot’s observation took on prophetic overtones. We claim to be somewhat enlightened, yet the fabric of community is still often torn apart by Molotov cocktail, tear gas and water cannon solutions—and then the tanks go rolling in. Evidently an ancient weaver of philosophy named Solomon was right: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Lightfoot was largely self-taught as a musician, being something of a sponge when it came to soaking in an education from legendary masters. The 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster had a strong influence on him during his formative years.
By the middle of The Sixties, Lightfoot was already being heralded as a great songwriter and national treasure—and rightly so. Marty Robbins, Peter, Paul & Mary, along with other international recording artists had monster hits with songs he’d penned.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Lightfoot to write Canadian Railroad Trilogy for a television special that aired on January 1, 1967 to launch celebrations for Canada’s Centennial. Ethereal and evocative, the song conjures the sweep of history rushing into the future. It ought to be required listening for Canadian citizenship classes, and also, a lesson to be studied for those aspiring to compose epic poetry.
“He came down through fields of green on the summer side of life. His love was ripe. There were no illusions on the summer side of life, only tenderness. And if you saw him now you’d wonder why he would cry the whole day long.” ~Gordon Lightfoot~
By 1969, when singer-songwriters were carving significant trails in my psyche, Lightfoot’s voice and rhythms were in the air. My older sister, Janice—who in a few short weeks will be celebrating her 39th birthday for the umpteenth time—was a Gordon Lightfoot aficionado. Her expertise on his music knew few boundaries. I listened to her collection of albums on a dime store portable record player.
Even crackling over cheap plastic speakers, his voice was sweet and captivating. The imagery stirred my imagination and creative juices. With the notable exception of Black Day In July, there were no hard edges. Mostly the sound was soothing, the phrasing picturesque. The Summer Side Of Life was a single from an album released in 1971. There’s no standout moment when I first heard it. I wish I could relate a tale about adolescent hijinks that’d create sloppy grins, or describe the laughter of a specific girl associated with the song, but not so.
The tune likely crossed my radar while on a bus ride to or from E. L. Crossley Secondary School. Maybe there was a high stakes game of euchre taking place in the back seats or just as easily, I could’ve been in a self-absorbed cocoon.
Whatever the circumstance upon first hearing it, the lyrics spoke to me and got stuck inside my head. Even though I was only in my mid-teens, life had happened with a rawness that was stunning. A couple grenades of tragedy had been tossed into the mix, which shredded reality to the bone. In 1971 there were no illusions of innocence left in my perspective. I was becoming grimly serious, gathering gloom around me as though it was a comforter to keep me warm and safe. On the summer side of my life, I was fully aware that death was tracking me down. The vaporous nature of life had been made abundantly and profoundly real to me. There was no denying the truth that life was as fragile as a butterfly with broken wings—a broken winged butterfly cannot flutter away from the grim reaper.
For reasons that have no particular rhyme that I can figure, whenever the leaves are ablaze, a pair of Canadians dominates the soundtrack of my life. Every year since the late seventies, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot are my running buddies during October and November. Call it tradition stemming from some subconscious quirk or eccentricity.
A week ago while on the road, The Summer Side Of Life came up in the rotation. It took me to a faraway reflective place—it haunted me. I got to thinking about all the decades that were gone—they’d raced past almost as swiftly as Highway 550 was disappearing behind me.
The fields of green and tenderness of childhood seemed too mysterious and unreachable to have ever truly existed. I wondered if my life mattered, if there’d been any worthwhile accomplishments. Did my taking up space on planet earth make a difference to anyone?
I thought about unspoken words that needed to be expressed—also words spoken that should’ve remained locked in silence. The faces of the forgotten flickered in an instantaneous and vastly weird montage. I considered chances not taken and opportunities missed. What if? If only? A fleeting sense of loneliness and loss began gnawing at the corners of my mind. There’d been a slew of dreams that had circled the bowl with the primal finality of a swooshing flush.
Lightfoot’s words swept over me. There were no shadows or illusions to buck me up. Life is what it is—from whatever side we view it, life has no guarantees. It is a short, shaky, surreal kick at the can. The autumn side of life is merely the natural flipside of the summer side tempered by wisdom and the creaking aches of age. All these thoughts took a tumble and crashed down around me. And there inside myself, I cried the whole day long.
“There were young girls everywhere on the summer side of life. They talked all night to the young men that they knew on the summer side of life goin’ off to fight. And if you saw them now, you’d wonder why they would cry the whole day long.” ~Gordon Lightfoot~
When I was a teen-ager I was fortunate in that I had many friends who happened to be girls—there were young girls everywhere. I am aware of the impact of their friendships on me, but unsure if I’m even a memory for them, so I’ll refrain from mentioning names. There was no romance involved—no romance that is until at seventeen, in the summer of 1973, a young college girl from Pennsylvania stole my heart and has never given it back.
Before that there were several severe cases of puppy love to be sure, but I was too aloof and socially inept to do anything except daydream. We made connections talking about big ideas and heart issues—sometimes until the wee hours of the morning in a coffeehouse or livingroom. There were occasions when we spent most of the night discussing what we expected to do, what we wanted to be when we grew up. These were significant times—these were hilarious times. The weight of life and coming to terms with it mixed effortlessly with the utter absurdity and randomness of it all.
Our response was to slough off the ugly and incomprehensible by cracking wise—laughter sanded off all the rough spots that prickled or hurt. Not sure if our humor solved anything, answered any questions, or fixed our anxiety, but it can still make me smile.
Now I’ve come full circle. On the autumn side of life I take a look around and there are young girls everywhere. Only difference now is that they’re my granddaughters—Zoe Grace, Jessica Noel, Fiona Susan Irene, and twin beauties, Hannah Abigail and Rebekah Anne. I behold the miracle of them—their lives stretch out before them with all the wonder and worry of it. Love swells in me along with concern for them because from the perspective of age, the harshness of life is an ever-present certainty.
I pray that their summer side will be kissed by innocence that’ll shape their idealism into pragmatic realism—I pray that faith, hope and love will sink vibrantly entangled roots in the good soil of their hearts.
When I eyeball them I want to cry the whole day long—happy tears blended in with angst. Which I suppose, given the endless marvel and helpless ambiguity of life in a fallen world, is entirely natural and normal.