Revered as one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, Gordon Lightfoot says performing onstage is still his greatest joy as an artist.
“I’ve always been a performer at heart,” the 75-year-old guitarist said. “I started out as a performer.”
In 2010, however, word spread that Lightfoot had died, a rumor he denies to this day.
“I had two health issues, and then they thought I was dead,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot was listening to radio while driving home from a dental appointment, and was surprised to hear about his death. It stemmed from a report on Twitter. He famously called the radio station he heard it on to allay the rumors.
He’s still going strong in spite of what they said, and is coming to Interlochen on June 18 to prove it.
Influenced by composer Stephen Foster and such artists as Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Lightfoot studied jazz composition and orchestration in his youth.
It was his songs that first gained him notice. Canadian folk-rock duo Ian and Sylvia added his material to their repertoire in the mid-60s. The folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary enjoyed hits with his tunes “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” while Marty Robbins topped the country charts with Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness.”
His debut recording, “Lightfoot!,” was released in 1966, and featured his own versions of “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “The Way I Feel,” and “Ribbon of Darkness,” as well as other originals and songs by Phil Ochs (“Changes”) and Ewan McColl (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”).
In the decades since, he’s recorded more than 20 albums and performed countless concerts across his native country, the U.S., and abroad.
Lightfoot has a special connection to this area. He’s performed previously at Interlochen, and also supports a scholarship at Northwestern Michigan College for its maritime program.
“I have a commitment there to the maritime academy,” he said. “I’ve had a scholarship there since 1977.”
He says Interlochen’s ambience keeps him coming back to the area.
“Interlochen has a wonderful amphitheater,” he said. “You can tune your guitar while you look across the lake.”
In the past 12 years, Lightfoot has not had it easy with regard to his health. In 2002 he suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which led to a six-week coma, a tracheotomy and several operations.
After recovering from that, he suffered a stroke while performing. It paralyzed two fingers of his right hand. Through physical therapy and continued exercise, he’s regained most of the use of the fingers and still plays guitar in performance.
“I had to find a new neural pathway. I never practiced as much as I did then [to recover],” he said. “Eventually I got back to 96 or 97 percent.”
Lightfoot says his shows draw from all facets of his career, and the diversity of the material keeps the concerts interesting for both performer and audience.
“It’s all different keys, different tempos,” he said. “Everything I’ve written is so different.”
Lightfoot says that diversity is a gift, something he isn’t conscious of doing when writing.
“There are only three or four songs that replicate one another,” he said.
While most every show features hits like “If You Could Read My Mind,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Sundown,” Lightfoot says he never tires of performing such familiar favorites. “I always do the songs a little bit differently,” he said. “There’s no such thing as getting tired of them.”
Nor, apparently, is there such a thing as retirement. The Interlochen show is the initial performance on a 10-date Midwest tour which concludes the end of the month. In July, he goes out again, this time out East, then finishes up the summer with a 14-show trip out West. In the fall, he’ll travel across his native country from mid-October through the end of November.
Lightfoot never anticipated the longevity of his songs or his career.
“‘Sundown’ is still getting airplay,” he said. “When I was 35, I thought what the heck am I going to be doing.”
Now, 40 years later, he knows. “I want to work while the sun shines,” he said.
Gordon Lightfoot takes the stage Wed., June 18 at 8pm in Kresge Auditorium. For tickets or more information, visit Interlochen.org.