Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind Directors Talk Epic and Intimate Musical Moments

Gordon Lightfoot is a national treasure in Canada and Directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni dig past the archives.

Gordon Lightfoot If You Could Read My Mind
Photo: Art Usherson

The documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, directed by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, is an intimate look at a prolific singer-songwriter who enriches and is enriched by the history of Canada. Most of the world knows Lightfoot as the singer with the recognizable baritone who put out hits like “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” and “Early Mornin’ Rain.” But in his native country, he is a national treasure. Before international fame, in 1967, he actually wrote and performed a piece called “The Tale of Canada” for the country’s 100th anniversary. After worldwide renown, he mined contemporary local history with the “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Lightfoot caught the performance bug early. He was five when he debuted his rendition of “I’m A Little Teapot” at St. Paul’s United Church Sunday School in Orillia. He would go on to study composition, do time as a singing drummer in jazz orchestras, Canadian Broadcast arranger, and session player, even recording with guitar legend Chet Atkins in Nashville in 1962 before moving into folk rock. Working for a time with the same manager as Bob Dylan, the two remained tight friends as they both played Greenwich Village clubs and the folk circuit. Lightfoot performed an acoustic set before Dylan took the stage to play electric for the first time, the documentary reminds us. They are unabashed fans of each other’s works.

Lightfoot rose up the charts with hits like “Carefree Highway,” “For Lovin’ Me,” and “Rainy Day People.” Besides Dylan, his songs were covered by Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Marty Robbins, Glen Campbell, Ann Murray, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Liza Minnelli and the Replacements. Frank Sinatra, however, passed on recording “If You Could Read My Mind” for being “too long,” according to the documentary. Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 and dropped his first full-length album in 16 years, Solo, on March 20.

Quite a few musicians and music enthusiasts are enthusiastic about Gordon Lightfoot, and the documentary lets artists like Sarah McLachlan, Geddy Lee and Gordon Alex Lifeson of Rush, and The Guess Who’s Randy Bachman explain what they learned coming up, and Ronnie Hawkins talks about the fun of it. Alec Baldwin talks to the fan side, comparing Lightfoot to more poetic singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens.

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Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, who co-directed Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, spoke with Den of Geek about the epic songs and even more epic parties thrown by Canada’s favorite singer-songwriter.

Den of Geek: Is it federally mandated in Canada to be a Gordon Lightfoot fan?

Martha Kehoe: Gord is in a very singular position, and I think Murray McLachlan kind of points it out in the film when he says, “People were looking around going, ‘Where’s our music, and where’s the Canadians’ stuff?'” And then all of a sudden there it was. So it’s more just a situation that Gord was a very significant artist in Canada, and people were just fans of him from the get-go. He came along at a certain time and place, where Canadians were looking for something, and he just had the talent, and he had the charisma, and people just liked him. We were excited that there was someone that good from Canada.

Joan Tosoni: And also, he was very prolific. I mean, he was a hit-churning machine there for quite a few years.

Kehoe: Popping out records. He was very, very popular in Canada from the time of his first record, but Gord was never pleased with how those United Artists records performed, so that’s why his deal with Warner was such a big deal, and that’s when he started having the international hits. He felt like the United Artists label didn’t quite know how to promote him. He did a lot of soundtracks in those days.

Do most Canadians know Gordon Lightfoot the way Americans know, say, Bob Dylan?

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Kehoe: It’s a very different relationship though. I think Bob Dylan inspires some awe. Gord inspires awe but if you see Gord downtown, people smile at him, people say, “Hey, Gord.” They feel a little closer to him, I would say, than people feel to Bob Dylan. Bob’s always been an enigma, and Gord, while being intensely private and so forth, has approachability for Canadians. Canadians feel like we know him a bit. I feel like Americans don’t feel as comfortable with Bob Dylan as Canadians would feel with Gord.

Tosoni: I agree. And Bob Dylan has maintained a kind of, how do I describe it? He’s deliberately maintained that distance.

Kehoe: He probably had to. The other thing is that Canadians, historically anyway, have been a little less intense than Americans. So even if you are a huge fan of somebody as a Canadian, you might not say hi to them if you saw them in a restaurant. I think everybody feels like Gord could be a friend of theirs, whereas you don’t necessarily feel that with Bob Dylan.

How did you approach Gordon Lightfoot about being in the documentary?

Tosoni: Well, we had been talking about it for years, but Gord felt he wasn’t ready. It was too soon for him. So when he was about 75, he said, “Okay, now it’s time. Let’s do it.” We did a preliminary shoot to make a promotion reel for funding, but it did take us five years to get the complete funding to do the film. So it was always in discussion, and we only went ahead when Gord felt he was ready.

So it wouldn’t have been made without his input?

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Kehoe: Well, we didn’t even think of that. His input was a big part of it. We’ve done things about his career before, but we sought to make this a feature film. Gord’s had a lot of profiles done on him. He’s done tons of promotion, but he’d never done anything that felt like you’d really feel like you’d spent time with him. We wanted to do something that was intimate and really authentic to Gord somehow.

Tosoni: Gord has done so many interviews. But I think at this stage, he committed himself to maybe revealing more than he did in the standard interviews. He recognized the importance of a documentary that was going to be more in-depth and maybe have to reveal more of himself than he had before.

Kehoe: Although, honestly, when he first saw the film, his attitude… What did he say, Joanie? Was it jaw-boning?

Tosoni: Oh, yeah. “A little too much jaw-boning and not enough music.”

Kehoe: That was his thumbnail take on his first watching of the film.

Tosoni: We asked him when we had completed the film and before anyone had seen it, if he wanted to see it, because we were opening at the Hot Doc Film Festival in Toronto. And there was going to be a big audience of some VIPs, people in the film, et cetera. And we asked him if he wanted to see it. He said, “Nope. I’ll see it with everybody else.”

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Since that time, he’s seen it with a few audiences, and he told me, “I really like the film now.” But if it had been up to him, it would have been all music and no talk.

Did the Second City skit “Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written” come up in conversation?

Kehoe: We actually didn’t talk about that, but he would know all those SCTV guys, and he would’ve found that hilarious. He doesn’t mind being lampooned, especially now. I think he’s a lot less sensitive than he used to be when he was a younger man. He talks about that in the film, that as a Canadian, he always felt like he was a little bit awkward, that he had a little bit of hay in his hair compared to some of the slicker people he used to meet in the music industry. But he’s got a good sense of humor about himself.

Tosoni: Burton Cummings does a thing when he’s onstage: “Lightfoot singing “Maggie May” and Gord laughs at it. He’s okay with it.

While I was waiting for you to call, I was watching a video of Joni Mitchell jamming with Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn at Gordon Lightfoot’s house. So I want to ask about his reputation as a terrific rock and roll party host.

Kehoe: Yeah. He had that big house in Rosedale for a long time, and it was sort of an unofficial headquarters for a group of people that hung out in Toronto. I say Gordon Lightfoot is kind of our Zelig or Forrest Gump. He’s met everyone. He’s been a part of every single scene in Canada. There’s never been a party in Canada that Gordon Lightfoot couldn’t get into, and that’s now and then. And he hosted a lot of them too.

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He always had sort of an open door policy. Steve Earle told us a story about when he was in Toronto, and he’d been a fan of Gord’s. And they said, “Okay. Well, let us make a call.” And somebody just drove him to Gord’s door and let him off and said, “We’ll come and pick you up in a couple hours.” And Steve was like, “Oh, my God, what do I do now?” But they went in and played guitar for a couple hours.

Tosoni: And now whenever Steve plays in town, Gord goes and sits in the audience, this many years later.

Kehoe: Gord told us a little bit about Bob Dylan, because as we make the point in the film, Gord has been a lifelong fan of Bob Dylan and still rhapsodizes about his talent as a songwriter. Gordon’s tight with Ronnie Hawkins. So when Dylan used to come up to Toronto to rehearse with the band, Gord would’ve been in on that scene. He was on the New York scene with his manager there. He knew Joni Mitchell before she’d even had a hit song. He knew a lot of musicians, and he was a partier, and he loved to host parties. So yes, he was, and he used to have a lot of parties at the Continental Hyatt House as well in L.A.

Dylan is also famously a fan of Gordon’s, so were you surprised that such diverse musicians from Anne Murray to Rush would sing Gordon’s praises?

Tosoni: No, it wasn’t a surprise. We were aware. And in fact, one of our disappointments making the film was that we were shooting mostly in the summer. Once we got the go-ahead in May, we had to start getting interviews, and there were several people who were willing, Joan Baez being a major one. We would’ve loved to have had Joan Baez in the film, but she just was on a huge tour, and we just couldn’t get a date where she was available to do an interview. And so, we do know that he has a lot of other performers, with diverse backgrounds, that admire him.

Kehoe: And also, I do feel for that generation of musicians, like the guys from Rush. As they say in the film, he was the first Canadian that got an international following and stayed in Canada. There’d been a few people before who had gone to the States and just disappeared into the United States entertainment world. Gord was the first one that stayed at home. So everybody like Rush and Anne Murray, they used him as an example like, “Hey, this guy has hits on the radio. He makes a lot of money touring, but he still lives in Toronto. You don’t have to go to the States to be successful as a musician.” So that’s another area where he really was kind of a role model for a lot of subsequent Canadian artists.

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How did Alec Baldwin, who’s neither Canadian nor a musician, get involved?

Kehoe: We were looking for people that spoke to different aspects. And Alec had Gord on his podcast, and you could just tell from the podcast that he was a real fan. We reached out to a number of people, and Alec played a nice role for us. First of all, he’s a big star, so that’s helpful for your film, but he also is a very articulate music fan and knows a little about the industry. So he was able to speak about Gord as a fan, as someone who wasn’t Canadian, who didn’t have that historical pull. He didn’t grow up listening to his music. He was a fan because the songs that were coming on the radio, and we thought he did a rather nice job of articulating those points.

We decided early on we didn’t want to have a really didactic documentary, where we would have a narrator and it would be sort of all that. We wanted it to be very much a conversation, maintain an intimacy. Alec was able to put together a few different things we thought were important that we wanted to show the depth and the breadth of Gord’s fans.

Tosoni: And interestingly too, he said yes immediately. We contacted his people, and we got a positive response right away. It was a really great experience doing that interview with him.

Gordon Lightfoot just released his first new album in 15 years. Did the documentary push him into this or did you happen to catch it at the right time?

Tosoni: In the early 2000s, he had an aneurysm that nearly killed him, and he had just before that written songs. He claims that he forgot about them, and he discovered them in his archives. In his home, he discovered this treasure trove of songs that he’d forgotten about. So he thought, “I’m going to put them out, because they never got put out.” And then he was going to add orchestration to them and a band and everything like that. And he decided it was better just solo, so he brought out this new solo album of songs that he wrote 20-ish years ago.

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You both had experience in live television, how is that similar to filming the concert experience?

Kehoe: We did very minimal filming. Joan had already directed a live concert in Massey with him around 2011. We had that, and we felt like that [2018] concert at Massey Hall was kind of special, because Gord played multiple dates in Massey Hall, every year for many years. So fans go to see him and there’s a very unique kind of mood that’s quite noticeable. It’s a give-and-take between the audience and Gord. People go there with their children, so the kids have the experience. It’s just a very special thing to be a part of. And Massey Hall is very closely associated with Gord. It was closing for renovations, and they had asked Gord to finish it out.

It’s sort of his second home, and we wanted to cover the experience of him being backstage and the vibe around him being at Massey Hall, so that’s how that was decided. But we didn’t do it with multi-camera and stuff like that, like we would do if we were doing a TV show. We were shooting single camera just to get a few important moments.

Tosoni: Yes, but many of the clips that you see in the film I directed or they were from programs that we had done in the past.

Did anything come out during the filming? Any of the topics surprise you? I was surprised by the Cathy Smith story, the John Belushi connection.

Kehoe: Well, we knew about that, because that was rather famous, and a rather infamous scandal. Again, when anything like that happens from somebody from Toronto, everyone knows about it. So we knew about that, and we’d been interested a long time in his relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith. And so, we kind of knew that, and we knew it was something people might have forgotten. You wanted to have some exciting “Wow” moments in the film, so that certainly provided one. We found that little clip of her being interviewed, and that was quite an interesting clip, we thought.

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I even saw a picture of him with Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan made a lot of duets. Why do you think Gordon wasn’t a celebrity collaborator?

Kehoe: I think Gord is just really a private type of guy, and he is quite a perfectionist, and then I think it makes him a little bit nervous performing with other people of a certain magnitude. I think that he likes to control his own sound a lot, and I think he would play with anybody informally and off-camera, anyone, because we know he does, and he has. But on-camera, he likes to be really in control of his own sound and his own performance. I don’t know, that’s just a guess.

Tosoni: Yeah, I agree, and not only on-camera, but in the studio. I think that it was indicated in the film, he was very controlling in the studio. He had control. He’s in charge. And as soon as you’re collaborating with somebody, you lose that control, and maybe he wasn’t comfortable with that.

Kehoe: That’s full-on speculation.

Lightfoot worked with the same musicians for years. You said he was sort of controlling, but do they function as a band? Do they input into arrangements, or were they just backing musicians?

Kehoe: I think they do have input into arrangements. I think it’s a little bit of a combination. A lot of artists use studio musicians and then put a band together to tour. Whereas Gord played with those guys for many years. He’s been with Rick for 50 years, and I feel like there is just a very known quantity. But when they talked about “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” they would’ve had some idea of what they were doing. But they all played along, and they used the first take as the song.

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Tosoni: Gord also does arrangements, but I think he is open to input from his band, and particularly those he’s been with the longest. For example, he had Pee Wee Charles in his band for a few years, and I think Pee Wee had a certain freedom in the arrangements because of the instrument and because it was something new. I don’t know if that’s really true, but I think he’s collaborative. But again, Gord has a lot of control and hears everything in his mind, and he’s also a music writer, because he can write the score.

What does “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” mean to the people around Lake Superior? It only happened a year before he wrote it. Is it still legend?

Tosoni: He plays it at every concert. It’s certainly a favorite. And also, he came to know the families of the men who were lost in that shipwreck. He carried very much about them and even changed a lyric, one lyric about what caused the sinking was somebody left the hatch open. They found that wasn’t true, and he changed the lyrics so that wasn’t indicated, because he came to know those people. They would come to the concerts.

Kehoe: And he would go to memorials there too, so he’s been very much in touch with all the survivors of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and it’s very much on his mind now. It was one of the only things he spoke to us about, caring how things were represented in the film. He gave us total carte blanche in the film, but he wanted to make sure that the Edmund Fitzgerald details were as he knew them to be.

He also was a boater on the Great Lakes. Did the wreck change how he approached the lake?

Kehoe: I don’t think so, because I think that if you’re a sort of a leisure sailor in Canada, you’re not sailing in November. I think November is freighters-only on the lakes, because of those things. So I think what he had more than anything was a love of the lakes, a love of the islands there, and a love of that whole area. Gord also loved industry in a way that men of his generation really did. I think he’s very interested in all sorts of blue-collar walks of life, of guys that work on ships or miners, or the railroad. He just was fascinated with every aspect of that sort of thing. When he read that story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, I think Gordon’s a guy who sees poetry in things, and he sees epic-ness in the everyday. I think that he really felt that that was such a tragedy. As he says in the movie, if they’d made another 15 kilometers, they probably would’ve been safe. And I really think that he felt it was a tragedy that it deserved more notice. He wanted to write an epic poem for this tragedy and for these sailors.

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Which documentary filmmakers influenced you?

Kehoe: When I was at film school, I met the Maisel Brothers. They came and talked. And obviously, the films that they made Grey Gardens and Give Me Shelter, that’s kind of ground zero. I’ve always said that one of my favorite films of all time is Nanook of the North, which was not really a documentary, but it had certain documentary elements. Ken Burns, there’s so many great documentary makers now.

Canada has also had a long history of documentary. And the CBC, which is the national broadcaster who was our broadcaster partner on this, has a real history of documentary, so that’s something as Canadians that we just grew up with. We used to watch docs when we were kids. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the guy who is one of our executive producers. John Brunton, who owns Insight Productions, made a film for TV in 1980 about Canadian music, and that really influenced me.

Tosoni: And me too. We didn’t really even know each other at the time, Martha and I, but we both had a bit of the same experience of seeing that program. It was a series called Heart of Gold, based on the Neil Young song, but it was on the history of rock music in Canada, basically, pop and rock. And he had a hard time. People laughed at him when he said he wanted to make this film. And when we saw it on TV, I was calling my friends and saying, “You’ve got to watch this thing. If you miss part one, there’s two more parts. Watch it.”

As fate would have it, we did the second. It’s now a trilogy. Martha and I made Country Gold together, which was a three-hour series. And then Martha made Comedy Gold, which was on Canadian comedy.

He’s been covered by many artists. What are his favorite covers of his, and what are yours covers of his songs?

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Kehoe: Sarah McLachlan covered “Song for a Winter’s Night,” and that’s really lovely. While I was researching this, I heard the Harry Belafonte version of that, and that was quite nice as well. Tony Rice is a bluegrass player, and he did a whole album of Gordon covers. And honestly, they’re all quite fantastic. Glen Campbell’s done some good ones. Anne Murray, her version of “Cotton Jenny” was kind of a hit in Canada. Obviously, Neil Young’s version of “Early Morning Rain.”

Tosoni: And we can’t forget Alison Krauss’ version of “Shadows.” And also the Tragically Hip version of “Black Day in July,” which is in the film because Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip are very, very beloved in Canada. Downie died a year or two ago, and when we were making the film actually. We used one that I loved in the film and that’s the Diana Krall and Sarah McLachlan cover of “If You Could Read My Mind.” I think it’s really beautiful. Gord says he’s never heard a cover he didn’t like.

It’s a shame Sinatra tossed “If You Could Read My Mind.”

 Kehoe: Well, apparently, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” hit the ground that night, same session, as well. So he was in good company of songs that were rejected out of hand.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind will be released in the U.S. on July 29.