Column: Gordon Lightfoot in Ann Arbor

From Canterbury House to Michigan Theater: Four decades of folkin'

This Wednesday Ann Arbor is in for a rare treat when Gordon Lightfoot – the fair-haired troubadour from north of the border whose repertoire includes such classics as “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – makes his first local appearance in more than nine years, performing at the Michigan Theater.

Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot in a recent publicity shot. He'll be performing at the Michigan Theater on Sept. 21, but has a decades-long history of touring here.

For his part, the 72-year-old singer-songwriter is glad to be returning. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says via telephone from his home in Toronto. “I’ve always gotten good vibes from Ann Arbor.”

Lightfoot first brought his guitar to town almost exactly 45 years ago, to play a three-night stint at a funky Episcopalian coffee house located in a former print shop at 330 Maynard Street. Today the unprepossessing brick building is home to Madras Masala, purveyor of exotic Indian delicacies; but in the ’60s it was Canterbury House, purveyor of coffee, donuts, and a hip spirituality that meshed nicely with the countercultural ethos of the day.

Canterbury House is actually a generic name used by many Episcopal student ministries at colleges across the nation. Ann Arbor’s incarnation was established in the mid-1940s and by the ’60s had become an important feature of the city’s increasingly progressive landscape. It began offering folk and blues music in 1965 as an experiment in reaching youth through the arts. Though mostly local performers were featured, the new program proved phenomenally successful, and the next year it was moved to a bigger location to bring in nationally-known acts.

First to appear at the extensively remodeled Maynard Street venue was the California-born “one-man folk festival,” Michael Cooney – “brandishing guitar, kazoo, banjo, autoharp, microphone, guitar strap, and truck,” according to the ad – who played three sold-out nights in early September.

Next up was a singer-songwriter from Ontario named Gordon Lightfoot, whose first album – the appropriately (if a bit over-exuberantly) titled “Lightfoot!” – had recently been released by United Artists. Although the young Canadian himself wasn’t that well-known in the states, his songs were. Marty Robbins took Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” to the top of the country charts in 1965, and Peter, Paul and Mary made a Top 40 hit out of “For Lovin’ Me” that same year.

“If I had not gotten my songs recorded by some other artists very early on,” says Lightfoot, “I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. It was my songwriting, actually, that got me started.”

Which according to Herb David, proprietor of the famous guitar studio that bears his name, made Lightfoot very similar to another famous troubadour of that era, Bob Dylan.

Like Dylan – Except He Could Play

Herb David was a central figure in Ann Arbor’s vibrant ’60s folk scene. He saw all the acts that came through town – including Dylan – and often sold them something from his shop. Sometimes he even joined them onstage. David remembers liking Lightfoot’s music and looking forward to his appearance at Canterbury.

“In Dylan’s case we used to say that he couldn’t play worth a damn, and he couldn’t sing worth a damn, but he sure wrote some nice songs,” explains David. “It was the same thing with Lightfoot – except he could play.”

Gary Rothberger, at the time a University of Michigan senior majoring in American Studies, also remembers Lightfoot’s Canterbury gig. “Not only do I remember it,” he says, “I remember the grass I smoked on the way there.”

Detail of Gordon Lightfoot's 1966 contract with Canterbury House in Ann Arbor. The document is part of the Bentley Historical Library collection. (Links to larger image.)

Rothberger was one of the leaders of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, meaning that his real major was radicalism. By 1966 rock and roll was well on its way to replacing folk music as the soundtrack of the protest movement, but at that point folk was still holding its own. Rothberger liked it all: the Stones, the Beatles, Motown, Dylan, the Dead – and also Gordon Lightfoot.

“The thing about him,” explains Rothberger, “was that his lyrics were incredibly poetic, and his music was relatively complex, not just the strum-strum-strum of a lot of so-called folk singers. Plus he sang great love songs.”

Lightfoot played at Canterbury House for three nights, from Friday, September 23, through Sunday, September 25, 1966, doing three 30-minute sets each night – all for the princely sum of $500.

In fact, Canterbury operated on a razor-thin margin and could barely afford to pay the small fees that it did. With a seating capacity of 150 and tickets going for $1.25, simply breaking even often required a sell-out crowd. Which it had in most cases, including Lightfoot’s. But Canterbury’s goal was never to make profits, and the intimate setting suited both the earnest folk musicians of the mid-’60s as well as their thoughtful audiences.

Are You Gonna Be There (At the Teach-In)?

It was a wholly different affair when Lightfoot next played Ann Arbor four years later as the headline act at the kickoff rally for the University of Michigan’s week-long environmental teach-in.

After slowly gaining momentum throughout the ’60s, the environmental movement all at once exploded into the leviathan-like Earth Day 1970, a nationwide celebration-cum-protest in which millions of people participated. The Ann Arbor teach-in was one of the first and biggest of thousands of ecologically-themed events taking place that spring.

James Swan, a junior faculty member of the UM School of Natural Resources, was part of the teach-in’s entertainment committee. “We wanted Pete Seeger, badly,” he recalls, “but he had other commitments that he couldn’t get out of.”

As a replacement Swan suggested Lightfoot, whom he had helped bring to Canterbury House back in 1966. Lightfoot didn’t have the same name-recognition as Seeger or some of the other possibilities that were kicked around, such as Joan Baez; but his songs expressed a love of the land, of wide-open spaces and natural beauty, that resonated with the themes of the teach-in. The committee was especially pleased to learn that the Canadian was willing to perform for free, asking only to be reimbursed for expenses.

Lightfoot’s chaperone on the day of the concert was Bill Manning, a UM senior and one of the teach-in’s central organizers. When they arrived at Crisler Arena it was to find the nearly 14,000 seat auditorium filled to capacity – and beyond. “The place was jam-packed,” remembers Manning. “Not everybody could get in. We had busloads of kids show up from different parts of the state.”

Three-Ring Circus

In addition to Lightfoot, the evening’s lineup included UM president Robben Fleming, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, Michigan governor William Milliken, radio personality Arthur Godfrey, ecologist Barry Commoner, and the Chicago cast of “Hair.” “It was like a three-ring circus,” recalls Manning fondly.

As with much of the teach-in, the kickoff rally was a highly-charged, heavily-politicized event. The crowd was noisy and animated, and many speakers were heckled. But by most accounts Lightfoot’s performance received a good response, especially considering the wide diversity of the audience and that many were probably hearing him for the first time.

James Swan remembers the mostly-Michigander crowd reacting strongly to “Black Day in July,” one of the Canadian’s few overtly political compositions, about the Detroit race riots of 1967. “It upset some ecology folks because it was more racial protest than ecological,” he says.

“I loved ‘Black Day in July,’” recalls Gary Rothberger. “I liked that it didn’t blame the rioters, but condemned the politicians.” Not everyone was so pleased – released as a single in 1968, the song was banned from many American radio stations and reportedly got Lightfoot banished from Detroit for a while.

After wrapping their 11-song set with the perennial favorites “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Early Mornin’ Rain,” Lightfoot and his backup band of Red Shea and Rick Haynes packed up their gear and prepared to depart. But not before handing the surprised teach-in organizers a bill for expenses totaling $2,000.

“We were a bit miffed,” remembers Manning. “I mean, $2,000, at that time – that was real money.” (Adjusted for inflation it comes to about $12,000 today.) Ultimately it wasn’t a significant problem, as the teach-in had in fact raised more money than its organizers were able to spend – all told nearly $70,000, or almost $400,000 today.

“It all worked out in the end,” says Manning. “But at the time it was a little off-putting to think that the expenses would be that high.” Still, Manning is the first to admit that their own lack of experience in the business side of the music world was probably a big part of the misunderstanding.

From Struggling Folkie to Soft-Rock Superstar

The next time Gordon Lightfoot came to town it was not as the struggling folkie he had been in ’66 but as a freshly-minted soft-rock ’70s superstar. His single “If You Could Read My Mind” broke out in late 1970, shooting straight to the top of the Canadian charts and becoming his first U.S. hit, reaching number five in early 1971. Flush with his newfound success, but going through a bitter divorce, Lightfoot returned to Ann Arbor in 1972 to play before a sell-out crowd at the 3,500-seat Hill Auditorium.

Gordon Lightfoot at Hill Auditorium 1972

Gordon Lightfoot performing at a 1972 Hill Auditorium concert. (Photo courtesy Sara Krulwich.)

Opinion was divided over the quality of the show. In his review for the Ann Arbor News, Doug Fulton wrote, “I can’t remember when I’ve had a better time at a concert,” and noted that Lightfoot received a standing ovation after each of his two sets. But the review in the Michigan Daily, the university’s student paper, was less than complimentary, mocking Lightfoot’s “Dylanesque beard” and “see-through lace shirt,” and interpreting his typical studied performance as lifeless.

Interestingly, the Daily reviewer also noted with some mystification that at the end of the show Lightfoot apologized to the audience for charging $2,000 for his appearance at the Earth Day rally in 1970. (“Good for him,” says Bill Manning upon first hearing of the apology 39 years later.)

Over the next decade Lightfoot would score his greatest successes – the million-selling “Sundown,” which went to number one in 1974, and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which peaked at number two in 1976 – just as the countrified folk-rock sound he favored began to go out of style.

In the ’80s and ’90s he continued to tour and put out albums, stopping off in Ann Arbor every so often to sing for appreciative if aging audiences. When he played at the Power Center in 1981, the Michigan Daily compared him to shredded wheat – a far cry from a review in the St. Petersburg Times a decade earlier, in which adults were urged not to be frightened away from Lightfoot just because the kids liked him.

Goodbye Rat Race – Hello Canadian Idol

When he concluded his recording obligations in 1998, says Lightfoot, “I gave myself the day off.” Since then he’s released only one album of new material, and has no plans to do another. He says he plays only as many live shows as pleases him, exercises regularly, eats right, and is probably healthier than he’s ever been.

Ironically, though, since bowing out of the rat race he seems to be regaining a measure of his old popularity, especially with the younger set. In 2003 there was a tribute album featuring artists like Cowboy Junkies and the Tragically Hip. In 2004 he was treated (subjected?) to the honor of listening to the bubble-headed twenty-somethings of Canadian Idol do an entire show of his songs.

But Lightfoot hasn’t consciously attempted to curry favor with a younger crowd. He’s never really changed his musical style – unlike fellow Canadian and inveterate genre-hopper Neil Young – and remains much the same wand’ring minstrel he was when he first came to Ann Arbor more than four decades ago. He’s not much interested in the technology that so obsesses today’s youth – “I don’t even have a cell phone” – preferring instead to stick with his trusty 12-string acoustic guitar. He doesn’t use the Internet, and the rumors of his death that briefly swept through cyberspace last year bothered him not at all. Nor does the thought of his songs being shared illegally online.

“I’m actually pleased,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m glad people are still that interested.”

Gordon Lightfoot will be performing at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Go to the theater’s website for ticket information.

About the author: Alan Glenn is currently at work a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the sixties. Visit the film’s Web site for more information. While there you can contribute your memories of that time – and read those that others have contributed – in a public forum set up expressly for that purpose.


  1. By Will
    September 20, 2011 at 9:59 am | permalink

    Great piece!

  2. By Rod Johnson
    September 20, 2011 at 10:42 am | permalink

    “Like Dylan – Except He Could Play”–right, and that’s why he’s a pivotal figure in modern popular music, while Dylan is a once-popular folkie that gets played on oldies stations once in a while.

    I mean, no disrespect to Lightfoot, who is a great songwriter, but sheesh.

  3. September 20, 2011 at 10:02 pm | permalink

    Dylan gets played on oldies stations once in a while in the eastern UP, but Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is on continuous loop at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. [link]

  4. By Susan FAlcone
    September 21, 2011 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Nice article. As I recall, in 1966 the Canterbury House was located on North Division St between Ann & Catherine.

  5. By gary rothberger
    September 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm | permalink

    Dylan could play. And sing. As I remember it, Lightfoot played on Maynard. Not only can I remember what I smoked, I also remember where I was sitting.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    September 21, 2011 at 7:58 pm | permalink

    Yeah, Dylan is actually quite a good guitarist. And–I’ve had this argument so many times I hardly bother anymore–I think he was a great singer.

  7. By Dan Madaj
    September 22, 2011 at 6:38 pm | permalink

    I remember being disappointed with Lightfoot’s “Don Quixote” album because it wasn’t the “all-whale” album he promised at the Ann Arbor Earth Day event. There was just the one whale song, “Ode to Big Blue.” I eventually forgave him . . . .

  8. September 28, 2011 at 10:20 am | permalink

    I saw Gord on September 16, 2011 in NW Minnesota. It was my first (and last) casino venue, and the 6th time I’ve seen him live. All 2,500 seats were sold, but some of the crowd was rowdy and disrespectful. Gord has lost so much weight (can’t weigh more than 130 pounds). His robust voice still hasn’t returned and, at times, there was nothing there. But, he has a heart as big as Canada, and I’ll still buy tickets anytime (as long as it’s not at a casino).