Finding fellowship in the poetry of Basho

By Douglas Penick


A Companion On the Shores of Autumn
The poet Basho as an old man stopping to talk with two men having tea by the roadside. By Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839–1892). | Image courtesy Library of Congress

Old age is a time of loss. We lose much of the strength and endurance of our body and our senses. We lose friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues. The world that had become so familiar becomes unfamiliar. We lose assurance in the reliability of our memory and our mental faculties. Thus we enter a realm of deep and pervasive uncertainty. Novel pains make even this body an unfamiliar dwelling place. There is no resolution to our progressive instability. Much that we have relied on comes apart, and we find ourselves in a terrain increasingly unknown.

Our minds, however, continue moving onward. We cannot say where we are going or what we are seeking, yet mind never stops. Perhaps we seek those things that meant so much to us in the past. But we also seek new ways of inhabiting our evolving circumstances. We know that we cannot go back. We are in a state of new isolation. So we look for something more fundamental, some kind of simpler, more settled awareness that stays with us. And some way of sharing this.

In 1689, the renowned poet and Buddhist practitioner Matsuo Basho journeyed on foot through northern Japan’s mountainous inner provinces. He was forty-five years old (quite old by the standards of the time) and not in good health. He and his friend Kawai Sora spent the spring and summer months wandering along arduous pathways as they visited remote villages and temples. This journey was the basis for Basho’s travel diary, a small volume that he worked on for the next five years and eventually published in the year of his death. It is one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, and it encompasses Basho’s outer journey and his inner reflections. It is very much a book of journeying in old age.

We cannot say where we are going or what we are seeking, yet mind never stops.

The Japanese title of the book is Oku-no-HosomichiOku, meaning “inward,” “distant,” “most far-reaching intention”; no meaning “of”; and Hosomichi, meaning “narrow pathway” or “trail.” Sam Hamill’s superb translation cannot be recommended too highly. He titles Basho’s masterpiece Narrow Road to the Interior, pointing to the text’s inner and outer dimensions. Those of us in our old age who now share the travels of this man so distant from us in space and time may well discover a close companion. As Hamill has noted, Basho’s poems often suggest elemental loneliness: “wabi, an elegant simplicity tinged with sabi, an undertone of ‘aloneness.’” It is not so much that we should regard Basho as an advisor or guide in our losses and uncertainties; rather, in the loneliness that is unique to old age, we can find in Basho a companion with whom to share the innumerable moments of loss and discovery that aging brings.

Here are some excerpts and responses, selected and written not as wisdom or advice or method, but as observations of companionable wanderers chatting or writing letters to each other.

The Moon and Sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by windblown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.

But this is not a world serving as the backdrop for an individual moving according to intention. Here is an unfixed being moving amid worlds of change. Existence, home, environment, past and future, life and death, all are continuously in flux. Perhaps we are more aware of this in old age because now we know that our control over our circumstances and our future is diminishing. We are being shaped and unraveled, carried here and there by forces we do not know. These unsought movements and changes will reveal unsuspected beauty and wonder. But they are groundless. It requires daring to look.

Those who remain behind watch the shadow of a traveler’s back disappear.

As we watch those who are becoming old, is it like this? Are we who watch them age simply left behind? Are we, the aging, disappearing from the sight of those who are still young?

My hair may turn white as frost before I return . . . or maybe I won’t return at all. . . . The pack made heavier by farewell gifts from friends. I couldn’t leave them behind. 

Here the wanderer is still thinking about how he will appear on his return, and he cannot abandon the kind offers of those he’s left behind, burdensome though these may be. Aging—it is the same.

Continuing on to the shrine at Muro-no-Yashima, my companion Sora said, “This deity, Ko-no-hana Sakuya Hime, is Goddess of Blossoming Trees and also has a shrine at Fuji. She locked herself inside a fire to prove her son’s divinity. Thus her son was called Prince Hohodemi—Born-of-Fire . . .” 

Japanese deities, or kami, are not just spirits of sun or sea or oak or mountain stream. Kami in the broad sense can refer simply to that which is awe-inspiring, fiercely provocative, or strange and haunting. In this sense kami can be described as experiences—clear and distinct moments in which perception of a place or thing merges with a specific syllable sound or word and a specific feeling. A unique moment of living intensity. Such an intensity, like that of the blossoming tree, is not necessarily locked in place. The myth describes the pregnant Ko-no-hana Sakuya Hime—a recently betrothed kami princess who had been accused of infidelity with a mortal—setting fire to her birthing hut. When she emerges with her newborn son unscathed by flames that would surely claim any mortal, the rumors are dispelled. Yet her moment of supreme conviction persists, crystallized in a new kami: “Born-of-Fire.”

This scene is the first moment where Basho and his friend are not concerned with leaving and loss. Their journey to the interior then brings them into an ever-unfolding landscape of moments that hover between past and present.

The last night of the third moon, an inn at the foot of Mount Nikko. The innkeeper is called Hotoke Gozaemon,
“Joe Buddha.” He says his honesty earned him the name and invites me to make myself at home. A merciful Buddha suddenly appearing like an ordinary man to help a pilgrim along his way, his simplicity’s a great gift, his sincerity unaffected. A model of Confucian rectitude, my host is a bodhisattva. 

Here, we and our companions find that the usual distinctions—between high and low, sacred and secular, who is to be revered and who is to be disdained—are melting away. And thus, through such humble and direct encounters in the next 45 sections, the two old travelers explore what the living world still gives them.

Sora, suffering from persistent stomach ailments, was forced to return to his relatives in Nagashima in Ise Province. His parting words:

Sick to the bone
if I should fall, I’ll lie
in fields of clover

He carries his pain as he goes, leaving me empty. Like paired geese parting in the clouds.

Now falling autumn dew
obliterates my hatband’s
“We are two”  

Hamill comments that the travelers had inscribed their hatbands to indicate that they were traveling “with the Buddha.” The final line—“We are two”—points at a depth of separation, both inward and outward, that was not expected. Here a sustaining friendship falls away as a deeper sense of hollowness, a deeper solitude, unfolds.

basho poetry aging
Basho’s hermitage depicted by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858).
Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art

In the poems that follow, Basho is bereft of his friend’s companionship, and his compositions are focused more on natural landscapes and the act of writing about them. Images and occurrences have a great sharpness and clarity in the desolation where they hover.

On the fifteenth, just as the innkeeper predicted, it rained:

A harvest moon, but
true North Country weather—
nothing to view 

. . .

Loneliness greater
than Genji’s Suma Beach:
the shores of autumn  

When he returns home, as he describes in the following and final poem of the narrative, Basho is welcomed by friends. Sora too, recovered from his illness, is there to greet him. And yet, as all of us must face our end alone, Basho enters a time that is more solitary than ever.

Still exhausted and weakened from my long journey, on the sixth day of the darkest month, I felt moved to visit Ise Shrine, where a twenty-one-year Rededication Ceremony was about to get underway. At the beach, in the boat, I wrote:

Clam ripped from its shell
I move on to Futami Bay:
passing autumn 

How shall we receive this poem? Basho found his return to customary social life almost excruciating, as if the sensitivity and receptiveness that had opened during his solitary wandering had peeled something back, left something bare—something that was now being scratched, bruised, exposed to harsh winds. He made an excuse that allowed him to wander once again. But now he would also leave autumn behind. Only the icy stillness and life-end of snow and winter remained, as he sought a solitude transcending time, space, and separation.

Now, in Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho continues to offer us aged wanderers companionship on this journey.


Now I imagine I am sharing this reading and my passing observations with two friends whom I recently saw. One had suddenly gone blind, the other had suffered strokes, broken bones, the death of an only son. They lived, as they had all their lives, on farms quite far apart. But now their longstanding close friendship was hard to access, even as their courage, love, and integrity remain. I don’t know whether this reading would interest them very much. If not, I can imagine that they would, so kindly, change the subject. 

Douglas Penick is a longtime Buddhist practitioner and has published three Gesar of Ling episodes. His books include the recent essay collection T The Age of Waiting, adapted from Tricycle articles, and the upcoming The Oceans of Cruelty.

Yokoi Yayu | Moon


Yokoi Yayu was a wealthy and influential samurai from Owari (today the area around Nagoya). He was a man of diverse interests, talents, and knowledge. He was known for being skilled in warfare, horsemanship, and other essential skills for a high-ranking samurai. In the realm of poetry, he excelled not only in haikai and haibun but also in Chinese poetry (kanshi) and humorous poetry (kyoka). Additionally, he was a talented painter and calligrapher and even gained recognition for his recitation of the medieval war epic Heike monogatari accompanied by the biwa lute and the performance of Noh texts. In Japan, he is also celebrated for his haibun, which are prose sketches in the spirit of haiku. Yokoi published over two thousand poems. The one on this scroll is taken from his book Rayoshu “Ivy Leaves Collection”, published in 1767. 

For a brief moment,
the crescent moon,
faint and hazy.

THE ART OF BUDO ~ Tricycle Magazine


Reading between the brushstrokes of martial arts masters

By John Stevens

In East Asian culture, brushwork is considered a “mind seal”—a single stroke can reveal what is in a person’s heart. It can also express the essence of a master’s teaching. Since it is not the formation of the characters but the spirit behind the composition that matters, few of the most esteemed examples of brushwork were by professionals—and many masterpieces were by martial artists. In fact, Wang Xizhi, venerated as the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history, was a Tang dynasty general.

This collection focuses on the brushwork of the budo (“way of martial arts” or “martial way”) masters of Japan. What defines a budo master? It refers to one who is well accomplished in all the technical aspects of the martial arts and, more importantly, the strategy behind warriorship. Strategy involves the ability to correctly evaluate an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, both material and psychological. However, one can qualify as a budo master even if one has never stepped on a battlefield. Although some budo masters refused to wield weapons (as part of their Buddhist vows), they were as skilled as the best martial artists. While many budo masters were heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, others were not—they drew on their experiences with esoteric Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Daoism, folk religion, and other traditions. Like Zen, the most effective budo teachings are short and to the point. Due to the compact medium—a single sheet of paper—the essence of a master’s teaching is limited to a few characters; typically a one- or two-line phrase or often only a single “one-word barrier.” Many budo masters painted as well. Although a few were excellent artists, the majority of their paintings are simply composed, and some are more like cartoons, often graced by a laugh-out-loud humor.

This is not an art history survey; it is a meditation manual. The illustrations are to be contemplated, not analyzed. It is an encounter between the viewer and the viewed. Everyone sees the artwork from a different perspective. The captions are “hints”; the interpretations are up to the reader.

Zen Snowman

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form! 


Paintings of a yukidaruma, or “snow Daruma,” are a common theme in Zen art(Daruma being the Japanese rendition of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk credited with transmitting Buddhism to China and rumored to have founded Shaolin Kung Fu). They are usually accompanied by an inscription of the most famous line of the Heart Sutra. The snowman materializes—in the depth of winter, it is as solid as can be—but when the weather begins to warm up, the snowman gradually melts away. The reality of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” can actually be seen in the appearance and disappearance of the snowman in a single, short season. This Zen snowman has a rather alarmed expression—he realizes that he is beginning to melt.

As a young monk, Izawa Deiryu (1895–1954) was a student and attendant of Nantenbo (see page 70), who once accused him of copying his work and selling it. Deiryu replied, “Why would I do that? My brushwork is much better than yours!” Later serving as the abbot of Enpuku-ji, he was a master of numerous arts—calligraphy, painting, kendo (a form of swordsmanship), and kyudo (a form of archery).

Zazen Oni

Let go of
You don’t have,
Forget everything you don’t know,
And just be like this [= Buddha]!

–Inscription by Motsugai

Even demons (oni) can be transformed through Zen meditation; an oni’s bravery and fearlessness can make its enlightenment more powerful and effective. Oni are known for wielding iron rods to beat evildoers as they fall into hell, but this oni has placed its rod on the ground in front of it; it no longer needs it. The inscription is a koan—“How is it possible to give up what we don’t have and forget what we don’t know?”—to be pondered single-mindedly and intently like the fiercest demon.

Takeda Motsugai (1795–1867) became a Soto Zen novice at age 5 and became a martial arts master famed for his prodigious strength, nicknamed “Demon.” Yet his zenga (“Zen artwork”) have a light, humorous touch, displaying a wonderful sense of joy and freedom—not all hard-edged and grim, as we might expect from a demon.


Speak and you get the Nanten staff;
do not speak and you get the Nanten
BO! (Staff )

–[signed] Seventy-plus-four-year-old fellow Nantenbo Toju

The staff in the middle serves as both a painting of Nantenbo’s staff and the last character of the inscription. The calligraphy on both sides of the painting form little staffs. He is telling us, “The essence of Zen transcends speaking and nonspeaking; clever words or mere silence will not cut it. Unless you really demonstrate Zen to me, you will feel a good whack of my staff.”

Nakahara Nantenbo (1833–1912) carried his trademark staff wherever he went and applied it liberally to “wake up” his students.

martial arts masters calligraphy


Sporting and sleeping
Amidst the dew in
A field of flowers—
In whose dream
Is this butterfly?


This refers to the famous dream of Chuang-tzu: “Am I a man dreaming of a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” There are several other meanings. In Japan, it is believed that at the time of a person’s death, a butterfly will appear to relatives, friends, and students who are close to the deceased, as a kind of farewell. Rengetsu’s signature is to the side, as if she is enjoying the butterfly and the calligraphy dancing about. The work is animated with no sense of a pause or a break in composition or concentration.

During her teen years, Otagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875) was raised a samurai lady in Kameoka Castle, well instructed in both the fine and martial arts. She was famed for her beauty and married young, but she eventually lost two husbands and all her children to illness. She became a Buddhist nun at age 33 and thereafter devoted her life to spiritual pursuits: meditation, charity, and art—poetry, calligraphy, painting, and pottery.

Mount Fuji

Good when clear, good even when cloudy—Fuji mountain’s original form never changes.


Life is full of changes, alternating between sunny and dark days, but our innate buddhanature, pure and majestic, remains undisturbed. Tesshu’s Fuji, the simplest painting possible, is formed by three lush brushstrokes. It is a masterpiece of minimalist Zen art, and the rhythmic flow of the calligraphic inscription is outstanding.

Yamaoka Tesshu (1836–1888) was a demon swordsman and an elite soldier. However, when he was defeated by the much smaller and older Asari Gimei, Tesshu realized that it was the mind, not the body, that determined the outcome. Studying Zen with the master Tekisui, he experienced a great awakening at the age of 45 and founded the Muto Ryu (“No-Sword School”) to promote his ideas of the sword and Zen as one.

Killer Frog

The two square off for a fight to the death
The one who is not rash,
Who takes a breath [has the right timing] will win—
In the evening cool.

The painting is by  Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), but the accompanying inscription is by an unknown calligrapher. Usually this type of encounter—which often takes place in the evening—ends badly for the frog, but this time my money is on the amphibian. The thin, timid-looking snake appears woefully overmatched. The frog is in a sumo stance (tachi-ai); in sumo, timing is key to victory. Sengai’s Zen frogs are typically whimsical creatures, but this killer frog is fierce.

martial arts masters calligraphy

From The Art of Budo: The Calligraphy and Paintings of the Martial Arts Mastersby John Stevens © 2022. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, CO.John Stevens is an author and Professor of Buddhist Studies at Tohoku Fukushi in Sendai, Japan. This was adapted from “What Did the Buddha Eat?” which appeared in the October 1985 issue of East West Journal.



Manuela Martelli’s new film examines the Pinochet dictatorship through the eyes of a woman who never intended to play an active role.

A middle-aged woman in an overcoat holds  a red and white phone to her ear while making a tense fist with her other hand.
Aline Küppenheim plays Carmen, a woman who is drawn into a political drama during the Pinochet years in Manuela Martelli’s “Chile ’76.”Credit…Kino Lorber

By Teo Bugbee

May 4, 2023“Chile ’76”NYT Critic’s PickDirected by Manuela MartelliDrama1h 35mFind Tickets

In 1973, the socialist government of Chile was overthrown by a military junta led by Gen‌‌. Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the United States. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled the country under Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted for 17 years and was maintained through violence. ‌

With the new film “Chile ’76,” the director Manuela Martelli joins the company of Chilean filmmakers like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Leilo, who have made thought-provoking movies reflecting on the Pinochet regime and its impact on the lives of everyday people. Martelli’s initial inspiration for the story came from a source close to home. She imagined the loss felt by her grandmother, who died by suicide in 1976, one of the most violent years of the dictatorship, before Martelli was born.

The protagonist of “Chile ’76” is Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), a regal woman of middle age. She’s a grandmother and a career flight attendant who now lives a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle with her husband in Santiago. When the story begins, she’s in the process of overseeing renovations to her family’s beachside vacation home. Carmen occupies her time alone with charitable work, guided by the sanguine priest of the town, Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina).

Carmen is discomforted by the sanctioned brutality around her — early on, she witnesses distraught neighbors being dragged away in the streets. But Carmen’s comfortable existence is not directly disrupted until Father Sánchez asks her to care for a fugitive hidden in the church. She acquiesces, nursing Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a wounded revolutionary, back to health. She transports antibiotics for his injuries, and lies to the suspicious authorities to cover her tracks. Anxiety becomes Carmen’s constant companion as telephones buzz on lines that might be tapped, and neighbors pry, posing inconvenient questions.

Martelli’s film demonstrates remarkable skill in reconstructing he time period, giving consideration both to recreating the appearance of the era and its emotional tenor. She filmed in beach towns that have remained relatively unaltered since the ’70s, and she complements the look of crumbling building facades with wood-paneled interior sets. It’s a world that’s both worn and warm; even the wallpaper comes in cozy plaid.

Yet Martelli’s detailed, beautiful frames aren’t signs of empty aestheticism. Her eye for composition mirrors that of her protagonist, a person of elegant tastes who is drawn into a political plot that intrudes upon her capacity to redesign. The film’s original score blends electronic and orchestral music, and acts as an indicator of Carmen’s justified paranoia, entering in moments when her routines are most disturbed. As an entrant into the growing canon of Chilean films responding to the Pinochet dictatorship, “Chile ’76” is a sly genre exercise, an example of how political repression can squeeze a domestic melodrama until it takes the shape of a spy thriller.

Chile ’76
Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.

Ex pats … EBoyles


Baldwin had felt asphyxiated in America: his family had expectations of him he hated, his friends were judgemental. He felt observed and intruded upon. Society was moralistic and prurient (not to mention racist). As a result, he couldn’t be creative or free and had the sense of being watched and commented upon all the time; it was like being always at school – or in prison.

So he undertook that most inwardly liberating of moves: he went into exile. From Paris, it no longer mattered what ‘they’ were saying. Public opinion could appear, as it always should have done, parochial and absurd. No one knew him in the French capital. They had never heard of his family. It was as if he had – in a good way – died and been granted a chance of a second, unsigned life. In France, he could create, take risks, dress differently, make unusual friends – and become himself.

Crucially, Baldwin had no interest whatsoever in assimilating into French society. He wasn’t looking to swap one narrow village for another. It was exile he was after – that very particular state in which one is free not to belong anywhere in particular, to escape all tribes in order to be unobserved, anonymous and detached. 

It may not always be possible for us to become actual exiles, but we should at the very least strive to become internal exiles, that is, people who can behave like visitors in their own lands, no longer bound by local idiocies, able to cut themselves off from the mean and restricted views of so-called friends or disloyal families, and to grow indifferent to provincial competition and grandstanding.

Baldwin and his fellow exiles are there to teach us about what freedom might feel like. We should strive to follow them in our minds, and one day perhaps, in our actual living arrangements.



By Katie Langford 

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Ridgway resident Lisa Issenberg creates and designs awards for a variety of organizations around the world. The name of her business, Kiitellä, is based on the Finnish word meaning "to thank, applaud or praise." Photo courtesy Lisa IssenbergRidgway artist Lisa Issenberg creates and designs awards for a variety of organizations around the world. The name of her business, Kiitellä, is based on the Finnish word meaning “to thank, applaud or praise.” Photo courtesy Lisa Issenberg

Lisa Issenberg is in the business of taking a significant moment in a person’s life and crafting it into a memory they can hold in their hands.

Out of her Ridgway workshop on Clinton Street, Issenberg designs and creates awards for organizations across the world, including the X Games, The North Face and the Audi FIS Ski World Cup.

But Issenberg’s love for metalworking wasn’t sparked until the tail end of her college years, when she came across a metalworker on a study abroad semester in Greece.

While she loved the arts and working with her hands, until that point she was afraid to focus on art because it didn’t seem like a realistic career.

“It was one of those moments where I was completely moved, and as soon as I got back to the states I took up metalwork,” she said. “It was really the first thing I could lose myself in, and that started off the trajectory of working in metals.”

Issenberg moved to Telluride after college, working as a ski instructor and setting up metalworking studios wherever she could find the space, whether in garages or her bedroom. She moved several times between California, New York and Ophir before finally settling in Ophir for good in 2001 and then in Ridgway in 2006.

Issenberg’s work ranged from designing jewelry to bear-proof trash cans, but she was still struggling to pay the bills until she sat down with a group of friends about 10 years ago to figure out a different plan.

“They asked me, ‘What do you love doing?’ And I said out of everything I’m doing, I love awards the most because you’re working with businesses who have a clear idea of what they need,” she said.

And so her business, Kiitellä, was born, based on the Finnish word meaning “to thank, applaud or praise.”

Issenberg said she’s long been inspired by Nordic design, including the emphasis on minimalism and appreciation for natural resources. She also draws inspiration from the German artistic movement Bauhaus as well as reusing or upcycling materials.

While award-making is a niche business, Issenberg said she has plenty of creative freedom in every project.

“A business is putting their faith in me to recognize their honorees in style, to represent their brand and to create something that is going to be cherished and appreciated by the recipient,” she said. “It’s a lot of good vibes and I have full artistic license, and I love the challenge.”

People sometimes ask her if she’s drawn to doing sculpture instead, but her answer is always no.

“I’ve really fallen in love with working with people and organizations. It opened up my world and my mind, working with so many organizations I didn’t know existed. It’s also wonderful to have a set of guidelines of what the award needs to represent and say, and the challenge is really perfect and right where I want it to be,” she said.

Issenberg said it’s hard to choose a favorite project, but she is excited about her upcoming work, including designing awards for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon and an award for Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin commissioned by the town of Avon.

Most of Issenberg’s work can be seen at kiitella.com.


His rich baritone and gift for melodies made him one of the most popular artists of the 1970s with songs like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “If You Could Read My Mind.”

Gordon Lightfoot strums an acoustic guitar.
Gordon Lightfoot in 2012.Credit…Chris Young/The Canadian Press

By William Grimes

Published May 1, 2023

Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian folk singer whose rich, plaintive baritone and gift for melodic songwriting made him one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s, died on Monday night in Toronto. He was 84. 

His death, at Sunnybrook Hospital, was confirmed by his publicist, Victoria Lord. No cause was given.

Mr. Lightfoot, a fast-rising star in Canada in the early 1960s, broke through to international success when his friends and fellow Canadians Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded two of his songs, “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me.”

When Peter, Paul and Mary came out with their own versions, and Marty Robbins reached the top of the country charts with Mr. Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness,” Mr. Lightfoot’s reputation soared. Overnight, he joined the ranks of songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, all of whom influenced his style.

When folk music ebbed in popularity, overwhelmed by the British invasion, Mr. Lightfoot began writing ballads aimed at a broader audience. He scored one hit after another, beginning in 1970 with the heartfelt “If You Could Read My Mind,” inspired by the breakup of his first marriage.

In quick succession he recorded the hits “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which he wrote after reading a Newsweek article about the sinking of an iron-ore carrier in Lake Superior in 1975, with the loss of all 29 crew members.

For Canadians, Mr. Lightfoot was a national hero, a homegrown star who stayed home even after achieving spectacular success in the United States and who catered to his Canadian fans with cross-country tours. His ballads on Canadian themes, like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” pulsated with a love for the nation’s rivers and forests, which he explored on ambitious canoe trips far into the hinterlands.

His personal style, reticent and self-effacing — he avoided interviews and flinched when confronted with praise — also went down well. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m being called an icon, because I really don’t think of myself that way,” Mr. Lightfoot told The Globe and Mail in 2008. “I’m a professional musician, and I work with very professional people. It’s how we get through life.”

Gordon Lightfoot performs in 1973.
Performing in London in June 1973.Credit…Michael Putland/Getty Images

How ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ Defied Top 40 Logic

May 2, 2023

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. was born on Nov. 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ontario, where his father managed a dry-cleaning plant. As a boy, he sang in a church choir, performed on local radio shows and shined in singing competitions. “Man, I did the whole bit: oratorio work, Kiwanis contests, operettas, barbershop quartets,” he told Time magazine in 1968.

He played piano, drums and guitar as a teenager, and while still in high school wrote his first song, a topical number about the Hula Hoop craze with a catchy last line: “I guess I’m just a slob and I’m gonna lose my job, ’cause I’m Hula-Hula-Hoopin’ all the time.”

After studying composition and orchestration at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, he returned to Canada. For a time he was a member of the Singing Swinging Eight, a singing and dancing troupe on the television show “Country Hoedown,” but he soon became part of the Toronto folk scene, performing at the same coffee houses and clubs as Ian and Sylvia, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.

He formed a folk duo, the Two Tones, with a fellow “Hoedown” performer, Terry Whelan. The duo recorded a live album in 1962, “Two Tones at the Village Corner.” The next year, while traveling in Europe, he served as the host of “The Country and Western Show” on BBC television.

As a songwriter, Mr. Lightfoot had advanced beyond the Hula Hoop, but not by a great deal. His work “didn’t have any kind of identity,” he told the authors of “The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music,” published in 1969. When the Greenwich Village folk boom brought Mr. Dylan and other dynamic songwriters to the fore, he said, “I started to get a point of view, and that’s when I started to improve.”

In 1965, he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and made his debut in the United States at Town Hall in New York. “Mr. Lightfoot has a rich, warm voice and a dexterous guitar technique,” Robert Shelton wrote in The New York Times. “With a little more attention to stage personality, he should become quite popular.”

A year later, after signing with Albert Grossman, the manager of Mr. Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, Mr. Lightfoot recorded his first solo album, “Lightfoot!” With performances of “Early Morning Rain,” “For Lovin’ Me,” “Ribbon of Darkness” and “I’m Not Sayin’,”a hit record in Canada in 1963, the album was warmly received by the critics.

Real commercial success came when he switched to Warner Brothers, initially recording for the company’s Reprise label. “By the time I changed over to Warner Brothers, round about 1970, I was reinventing myself,” he told the Georgia newspaper Savannah Connect in 2010. “Let’s say I was probably just advancing away from the folk era, and trying to find some direction whereby I might have some music that people would want to listen to.”

Gordon Lightfoot performs onstage in 2018.
Lightfoot with his 12-string guitar at the 2018 Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif.Credit…Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

Mr. Lightfoot, accompanying himself on an acoustic 12-string guitar, in a voice that often trembled with emotion, gave spare, direct accounts of his material. He sang of loneliness, troubled relationships, the itch to roam and the majesty of the Canadian landscape. He was, as the Canadian writer Jack Batten put it, “journalist, poet, historian, humorist, short-story teller and folksy recollector of bygone days.”

His popularity as a recording artist began to wane in the 1980s, but he maintained a busy touring schedule. In 1999 Rhino Records released “Songbook,” a four-disc survey of his career.

Mr. Lightfoot, who lived in Toronto, is survived by his wife, Kim Hasse, six children — Fred, Ingrid, Miles, Meredith, Eric and Galen — and several grandchildren, according to Ms. Lord, his publicist. His first two marriages ended in divorce. His older sister, Beverley Eyers, died in 2017.

In 2002, just before going onstage in Orillia, Mr. Lightfoot collapsed when an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta ruptured and left him near death. After two years spent recovering, he recorded an album, “Harmony,” and in 2005 he resumed his live performances with the Better Late Than Never Tour.

“I want to be like Ralph Carter, Stompin’ Tom and Willie Nelson,” Mr. Lightfoot told the CBC in 2004. “Just do it for as long as humanly possible.”



Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian folk legend, dies at 84 ~ NPR

May 1, 2023

LISTEN· 3:43

Canadian folk-rock icon Gordon Lightfoot has died at the age of 84.

Lightfoot died at a Toronto hospital on Monday night of natural causes, according to his publicist. The singer-songwriter had long suffered from serious health problems that caused extensive hospitalization in 2002.

Lightfoot hailed from a tiny town in Ontario. He first made his name in Toronto’s coffeehouse scene. There, he impressed folk music stars Ian and Sylvia, who helped introduce him to the world outside Canada by recording some of his songs. Lightfoot himself found international fame in 1971, with a song called “If You Could Read My Mind.”

That song, says former Toronto Globe and Mail music critic Robert Everett Green, contains what would become some of Lightfoot’s favorite themes: loss, longing and nostalgia.

“It’s a song about inarticulateness,” Everett Green said. “But somehow, it really makes an amazing case. Here’s someone who really can’t say what he wants to say, yet by singing about that inability, he connects.”

Lightfoot’s voice was raspy and regretful, the perfect complement to his rugged hinterlands look. But the hearty facade hid a roiling personal life.

In a 1983 NPR interview, Lightfoot – one year sober at the time – discussed his struggle with alcoholism. “The people that were very close to me were beginning to question my credibility and my decision-making process,” he confessed, adding: “Now, the irony is that they still question my credibility and my decision-making process.”

Many of Lightfoot’s songs about Canadian wildlife, streets and weather doubled as cultural elegies — like his 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a dramatic retelling of a real-life maritime disaster.

“As he’s singing it, you’re getting the strong sense that not only is one ship going down, but a whole way of life is disappearing,” says Everett Green. “It’s something kind of dusty and genuine and isolated, and it’s gone.”

Lightfoot never displayed the range or inventiveness of such contemporaries as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but some fans found the consistency of his wistful ballads reassuring. Everett Green says Lightfoot’s best songs, such as the often-covered “Early Morning Rain,” described a fading world.

“You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train,” says Everett Green, quoting the song’s chorus. “The freights crossing the prairie, with that great lonely moaning-whistle sound, have been obliterated by jet travel and the shrinking of spaces and the invasion of the hinterland that formerly was one of Canada’s strengths.”

Gordon Lightfoot wrote more than 400 songs about what he loved — and what he missed.