There are two fundamental motivations behind why people listen to music: to be challenged and to be comforted. Challenging music acts like a drug: it’s not intended for the mainstream community; it’s only for the weirdos and the freaks; it can give the listener a buzz; it can become addictive; it may drive the listener to increasingly far-flung corners of the earth in search of that same high she got the first time she listened to challenging music; and its effects on the listener may become negligible if the listener develops a tolerance. I’ll never forget the feeling of having my molecules, my very essence, permanently rearranged the first time I listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico, the first time I listened to Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, the first time I listened to Sister and Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, and the first time I listened to Strange Mercy by St. Vincent. Those were transformative experiences. I left them forever changed. Sometimes I worry I’ll never track down that high, that feeling, again.
I suppose I assuage that fear by almost exclusively listening to the comforting variety of music. If I don’t seek out music that challenges me, I won’t be disappointed when I’m left unchallenged. These days, when I listen to Shovels & Rope, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Sturgill Simpson, Justin Townes Earle, or Lucinda Williams, I’m reminded of the rolling hills of bluegrass amongst which I was raised. The rhythms, the cadences and phrasings, and the melodies of Americana music remind me of the rhythms, the cadences and phrasings, and the melodies of home. Americana music is, for the most part, comforting. Americana music is home.
Going home is nice, but sometimes it’s not enough. When I want to return to the carefree and unfettered joy and innocence of my youth, I listen to Summertime Dream by Gordon Lightfoot.
I’m not 100% sure how or when Gordon Lightfoot’s music came to my family, but I’m fairly certain it happened on one of our annual family vacations to the Great Lakes. See, though I’m a proud, born and raised Kentuckian, I come from Midwestern stock. My father—hailing from Toledo, Ohio—particularly embodied those Midwestern values. And according to him, and most Midwesterners, there was no reason to vacation on the coasts. The coasts were too far away and too trashy. Or at least that’s the sort of thing Midwesterners tell themselves. It’s a sad, self-created consolation for their desolate, land-locked, flyover existence: “why would we go to the coast when we have all these wonderful lakes right here?”
Maybe this is just my Midwestern stock talking, but, though in adulthood I’ve grown to love the ocean—or maybe just the feckless freedom of the “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” Jimmy Buffet, beach bum lifestyle—I’m quite thankful for my family’s Great Lakes vacations. While other kids frolicked on perfectly white sands as their drunken parents listened to some nonsense about Aruba and Jamaica and “Ooh, I wanna take ya” crackle across the saltwater misted radio, I was in the dark, dank recesses of the Lake Superior Shipwreck Museum. I think it was at the shipwreck museum—after screening an Edmund Fitzgerald documentary in which Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played over the closing credits—that we decided to procure the compact cassette of Summertime Dream.
It should be noted that I’m mostly unsure of how and when we discovered, or rediscovered in the case of my parents, the songs of Gordon Lightfoot because it’s not as if we only ventured to that museum once. No, there were multiple trips. When some of my fondest childhood memories are listening to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on family vacations and visiting a shipwreck museum, I suppose it’s no wonder I ended up chasing the dragon of dissonant chords and detuned guitars throughout my twenties.
Though I can’t quite place the exact moment we decided to track down that Gordon Lightfoot cassette, I can still hear my dad, his voice always somehow managing to simultaneously strike notes of childlike wonderment and deadpan, academic earnestness, walking out of the documentary screening and saying something about having forgotten what a great song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was. I can almost remember him exclaiming, “We have to get that tape for the van!”
The van was a Plymouth Voyager. My father, my mother, my sisters Beth and Katie, sometimes even my cousin Nathaniel, and I would pack ourselves, and the various ephemera with which we would entertain ourselves, into that tin can and hurdle ourselves north toward the lakes Lightfoot evokes in “The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald”:
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.
Though we mostly traveled to Lake Michigan, we managed to visit all five of the Great Lakes throughout the years. My all-time favorite family vacation was a trip in which we drove all the way around Lake Superior, stopping and exploring various sleepy hamlets in Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along the way. On nearly all of those trips, Gordon was our constant companion and navigator; for us, his voice was synonymous with the winding, wooded highways around those lakes.
Gordon’s standing as a songwriter is debatable. Because of the success he found on AM radio in the ‘70s with songs like “Sundown” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” he’s often unfairly lumped in with lightweights like Dan Fogelberg. But ol’ Gordon’s arrival on the folk scene predates even that of Bob Dylan, and he had his material recorded by such early adopters as Ian & Sylvia, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, and The Kingston Trio. The guy certainly doesn’t lack credibility. And, man, could he write a melody. Just listen to “Spanish Moss,” the penultimate track on the second side of Summertime Dream, and tell me Gordon didn’t have a fantastic knack for melody.
Beyond those melodies, I was absolutely captivated by the mystery and intrigue underlying some of Gordon’s songs. On the 7-minute, epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the eerie strains of a pedal steel guitar and a moog synthesizer only added to the mystery of what sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. I was equally captured by the intriguing proposition of waking up “to the promise of your dream world coming true” mentioned on the playful “Race Among the Ruins,” the mysterious troubadour who “was born in the back of a Seminole bus on the road to Niagara Falls” on the upbeat “Do It Again,” and the “old seaman’s chest full of charts/ where old maps are contained and what’s left of his brains/ when his crew threw his balls to the sharks” on the haunting “Too Many Clues In This Room.”
For a boy who was taking in the natural beauty and wonders of the Great Lakes from the back row of a Plymouth Voyager, Summertime Dream had it all: pretty moments, playful moments, upbeat moments, mystery, intrigue, and a lyric about balls. Fortunately, I can always count on Gordon—the consummate companion and navigator on any journey I take—to guide me back to the carefree and unfettered joy and innocence of my youth, where my family and I wove between the lakes in a sardine tin of a minivan. All I have to do is put that decades-old cassette in the tape-deck and press play.