When I was a girl, I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s albums often enough that I knew the words to his songs as well as I knew the lyrics on my Sesame Street records.

Once, my mom brought home a recording from the library: one of his ballads with an illustrated book to accompany it, an early version of electronic baby-sitting.

Groundwood - House of Anansi, 2010

It could even have been the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, but it certainly was not as sumptuously illustrated as the volume created by Ian Wallace.

Nonetheless, simply hearing the opening words, whether spoken by a reader (my 9-year-old BIP girl, in this case) or sung by Gordon Lightfoot, brings a swell of memories for those who were raised with this music.

“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.”

Lightfoot was commissioned in 1967 to write the song in celebration of the Canadian centennial and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

(A link to the CBC’s 1967 video in which Lightfoot performs against a montage of historic images appears here.)

The building of the railroad symbolized the unification of a vast land and all the promise that entailed: it was a wonder.

Yet the cost was phenomenally high for indigenous peoples, displaced from their homelands, and for immigrant workers, who lost their lives: it was a horror.

Lightfoot’s song reflects this dichotomy with more than 6 minutes of rolling melody and chord changes contributing to the sense of forward momentum at the song’s start and finish, and a slower segment in the middle, that serves to emphasize the relentless movement of the line. (The lyrics and chords for the song are available on Lightfoot’s site for the musically inclined.)

The notes with the thumbnails in the back of Canadian Railroad Trilogy, published by House of Anansi, reveal that Ian Wallace sought to embody  these extremes as well.

Wallace’s site also contains a gallery of photographs of Gordon Lightfoot attending the exhibition of Wallace’s CRT paintings in Toronto 2010 (some of the works can be seen here, too).

He has stated that he has “always believed in the uniqueness of the writer’s voice, and my responsibility as an illustrator is to hear that voice”.

In Canadian Railroad Trilogy, he “wanted to capture [Sir John A.] Macdonald’s dream and Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song all at the same time. And the only medium I thought could do that was chalk pastels,” he said.

“In one moment it can look ethereal and dreamy and as soft as clouds and in the same stroke you can create concrete rock and reflective surfaces of steel. That’s the real beauty of it.”*

On one page, the reader is struck by the images of the workers’ lives, trains and bridges and, on the next, the overwhelming presence is of the Canadian landscape (with indigenous peoples and wildlife also present) rather than the railroad.

As a Canadian icon, Gordon Lightfoot has made an unexpectedly prominent appearance in my reading list year, thanks to Dave Bidini’s Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, The Music, and the World in 1972.

Given how quickly the lyrics flooded back to mind, it would seem that the Canadian Railroad Trilogy occupies an unexpectedly important place in my memories as well.

* Mark Medley, “Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy now an illustrated book”: The National Post October 8, 2010 http://arts.nationalpost.com/2010/10/08/lightfoot/

Project Notes:
Day 11 of 45: Tomorrow, another book on this theme (you’ll figure it out), one read by my 12-year-old-BIP girl on the same evening, while I was chopping veggies for foccaccia and boiling the water for pesto-topped noodles. There are all kinds of reading opportunities in a day, which is useful, because I don’t think I’ve ever read so many books in less than two months time.