The Gordon Lightfoot Connection

Gordon Lightfoot in 1965
Source: Mariposa Folk Foundation

Gordon Lightfoot recalls, with a laugh, how he and his then singing partner Terry Whelan were turned down from playing the inaugural Mariposa Folk Festival of 1961. “We were hometown boys,” he stated, “but they said we sounded too much like the Everly Brothers! We actually took that as a compliment.” The next year though, Gordon was hired as a solo act and joined the likes of Oscar Brand, the Travellers and Ian & Sylvia at the Lion’s Oval in Orillia. 

In 1964, the festival was slated to take place near Moonstone, Ontario just west of Orillia. However at the last minute, a court injunction forced the organizers to quickly re-locate to Maple Leaf Stadium, a cavernous baseball arena in downtown Toronto. It was there young Gordon found himself on stage with folk-blues legends Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. An archival recording of that historic event has Lightfoot introducing his brilliant new song ‘Early Morning Rain’. 

The festival moved north of Brampton for the next few years at a place called Innis Lake. Lightfoot shared top billing with the likes of Pete Seeger, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Doc Watson, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. As his career began to take off, Mariposa provided an annual venue to showcase new songs and new albums.

Dylan & Lightfoot in 1972
Unknown Source

By the early 1970s, Mariposa had established itself as a musical mecca for not only traditional folk practitioners but also for the new breed of singer-songwriters who were taking over the musical charts and airwaves. Joan Baez, James Taylor, John Prine, Steve Goodman and Bonnie Raitt were just a few of the “big names” who appeared at the festival. By 1972, Lightfoot was not only the best-known singer in Canada but he had secured a place among the best songwriters in the world. Both Bob Dylan and Glen Campbell called him their favourite tunesmith. That year, Lightfoot and Dylan paid a surprise visit to Toronto Island where the festival was now solidly ensconced, and they watched as Neil Young took over Bruce Cockburn’s set. Lightfoot actually slipped into the crowd and, sitting at a picnic table with the Good Brothers, gave an impromptu concert to a small group of lucky patrons.

Over the next couple of decades it was common for performers to do a Lightfoot cover at the festival. By the mid-90s, organizers felt a need to honour our premier folk musician and in 1995, the entire weekend festival was devoted to Lightfoot with cover workshops and the presentation of a plaque that read, “On the occasion of the 35th Anniversary Mariposa Folk Festival. The Mariposa Folk Festival honours Gordon Lightfoot, one of its earliest and best loved performers. August 10-13, 1995.”

After a nomadic journey around Ontario, the festival finally returned to its roots in 2000. It was uncertain that the festival would even survive, let alone return to its past glory. By the late 90s, the event was a mere shadow of its former self and there was some doubt as to its chances of succeeding in Orillia. But someone came up with the magical solution of getting Gordon Lightfoot to appear. Organizers announced that the hometown hero would be the Sunday night headliner. Immediately, hundreds of tickets were sold and the question of whether or not there would be a successful festival was put to rest. With his backup band of Terry Clements and Rick Haynes, Lightfoot put on a marvellous show, giving the open-air audience a taste of his hits and well-loved songs. Thanks to Gordon’s presence, the first Mariposa of the 2000s was a triumph.

Gordon Lightfoot
courtesy of Frank Lennon/Toronto Star/ Library and Archives Canada

In 2002, while ironically preparing for a concert in Orillia’s historic Opera House, Lightfoot suffered a near-fatal aneurysm, and spent months in a coma with his survival in question. But, after a number of operations and long rehabilitation, he overcame the medical trauma and slowly returned to health. For two years he did not play any concerts or do any recording. His voice, weakened by the damage done to his diaphragm, was no longer the strong tenor that it had been in his younger days. He had to learn to use his breathing in new ways to produce any kind of singing voice at all. In 2004, artistic director Randi Fratkin organized the Sunday evening main stage concerts as a tribute to Lightfoot, with Murray McLauchlan as the headliner. Gordon, a longtime friend and admirer of Murray, decided to visit the festival (as a spectator) and hear the interpretations of his songs. His black Lincoln limo pulled up close to the stage and a rather fragile Lightfoot stepped out. To the surprise of the backstage organizers, the driver opened the trunk of the car and lifted out Gordon’s Martin guitar. Main Stage host Michael Wrycraft had been hinting all night long that Gordon might show up but everyone was utterly shocked when he strolled onto the stage with the guitar around his neck and stepped up to the microphone. In a very thin and wispy voice, he began one of his more recent songs ‘I’ll Tag Along’. The utter silence from the audience was a mixture of awe and reverence, and when the song ended, the entire crowd was on their feet shouting and applauding – more than a few tears were shed as well. Choosing Mariposa to begin his comeback was a momentous occasion. 

By 2005 Gordon was back to touring again and was one of the headliners at the festival. 

The 2007 festival goes down in history as one of the most memorable ones, thanks once again to the presence of Mr. Lightfoot on Main Stage. New artistic director Mike Hill had learned that Bob Dylan would be playing at Casino Rama, a stone’s throw from the Tudhope Park setting of Mariposa. He contacted Dylan’s manager to notify the eccentric performer that his friend Gordon would be playing just across the lake. As Gordon took the stage on Sunday night, the sky opened up and rain came down, but Lightfoot and his band refused to leave the stage. Despite fears of electrocution, the band played on. “Actually, once I was wet, I actually began to feel warm,” Lightfoot commented several years later in an interview. Most of the audience stayed in place to see their hometown favourite but a few less intrepid souls headed for their cars and began to exit the park. As all this was happening in Tudhope Park, a long white limousine approached the entrance from the direction of Casino Rama and pulled into the parking area. Seeing so many cars leaving though and considering the torrential rain, the limo made a short stop and then did a U-turn to leave the park. Frantic organizers tried to get to the car in time and tell its occupant that the show was still going on! To no avail, the car exited the park and left without knowing that on stage, Gordon was soldiering on. He’d come to deliver a show and he was not letting rain or a thunderstorm stop him. Finally, with his traditional show closing ‘Canadian Railway Trilogy’, Lightfoot left the stage. As he came off, he tilted his twelve-string guitar and out poured a stream of water! The bittersweet coincidence of Dylan thinking the show was over and Gordon insisting on carrying on was not lost on those who knew what had transpired. Imagine Dylan sitting on the sidelines watching Lightfoot or better yet, imagine the two of them singing together as they had in the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review! A missed moment in the long history of Mariposa.

Gordon Lightfoot 2019
Photo: Good Noise

2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the festival and all the stops were pulled out to make it a great show. The performers were a mix of historic and current names. Ian Tyson and former partner/wife Sylvia had the audience in tears as they performed ‘Four Strong Winds’. 90-year-old Oscar Brand sang his anthemic ‘Something to Sing About’. Murray McLauchlan performed his great songs and the iconic Whiteley Brothers, who’d played Mariposa since the early 70s, took their rightful spot on Main Stage. The two leaders of Blue Rodeo, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, delivered their band’s “greatest hits” as an acoustic duo. The last headliner of the evening of course was none other than Gordon Lightfoot – who else could top that list of marvellous performers?

In 2012, the Sunday night headliner was the incomparable Jann Arden. Unbeknownst to festival organizers, Gordon’s daughter Ingrid was a big fan and wanted to hear and meet the Alberta singer in person. Sunday evening a small group comprised of Gordon, his daughter and a couple of other people pulled into the performer’s parking area and strolled to what is called the ‘back gate’. A young security volunteer who happened to be from England stopped the group as they tried to get in as they didn’t have the necessary credentials or wristbands, and he didn’t recognize the Lightfoot in the group. A quick-thinking board member who happened to see the encounter, rushed over and quickly assured the volunteer that it was okay to let this gentleman and his party into the festival backstage area! In what seems to be characteristic Lightfoot demeanour, Gordon asked if he could sing a couple of songs on stage but insisted that it had to be okay with Jann saying, “I don’t want to upstage her”. When told he was going to sing a song or two before her set, Jann was more than accommodating and showed her typical sense of humour, “Hey it’s Gordon Lightfoot. He can do whatever he wants!”

Over the last several years, Mariposa has become an annual event on the Lightfoot family calendar. Gordon has shown up most years to take in the festival vibe, see certain performers, renew old acquaintances and give the audiences just a taste of his musical magic. A couple of times he came to see daughter Meredith Moon perform. One year he showed up – guitar in hand – to watch a ‘Lightfoot Tribute Workshop’ which excited but also intimidated the performers on stage. His yearly appearances were highlights for many in the crowd, and are a true indication of the reverence and high regard people have for this iconic performer. Even fellow performers are moved by his very presence. Gordon came specifically to see Tom Cochrane perform at Mariposa in 2019 and Tom was moved to tears by Lightfoot’s performance of “If You Could Read My Mind”.

Listen to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Summer Side of Life”

Of all the performers who’ve ever played Mariposa – and there have been thousands – one stands out as the greatest. Whether it’s his stage presence, his songs, his professionalism or his obvious love for the festival itself, Gordon Lightfoot has meant so much to this annual event. Mr. Lightfoot and Mariposa are tied to each other.