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People & Culture

Gordon Lightfoot’s favourite place in Canada

The ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ balladeer recalls his childhood exploits in Orillia, Ont., and the surrounding lake country

  • Published Nov 10, 2016
  • Updated May 02, 2023
  • 581 words
  • 3 minutes
Gordon Lightfoot illustration by Robert Carter for Canadian Geographic
Illustration: Robert Carter/Canadian Geographic
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From east to west, up into the Arctic and all the other wild places I’ve been, so many have poetic imagery that, fortunately, I’ve had the ability to translate into words, into songs. They get your imagination working for you.

But of all places, Orillia, Ont., my hometown, was the greatest influence. There was always music. In Grade 7, I made my first recording for a parents’ day event. It was “Irish Lullaby,” and it got played over the school sound system. I was taking music classes, then, performing the Irish tunes Bing Crosby was recording at that time for Orillia’s ladies’ committees and the men’s Lions Club. All through high school I sang with a dance band, and we used to play all the big school dances. My girlfriends always had to sit on the sidelines and wait for me (I had a couple of “rotations” going through high school). I’d get away for a couple of dances, of course, but they were so good about waiting.

My friends and I fished winter and summer on Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. I remember one winter that had been so cold, all of Lake Couchiching was covered by black ice and no snow whatsoever, and it lasted for about a week that way. But mostly we fished in Simcoe, off Eight Mile Point. Every winter for five years, we’d go half a mile out, each in our own huts, and pull up whitefish and lake trout. We used to take that lovely whitefish down to the Buehler Bros. meat market and sell them to the guy who ran the place. In the summertime we caught bass and perch up on Couchiching’s east shore.

The memory of it all! I mean, I was like Huck Finn. You could name any number of streams and we’d fished them, including the North River area where we went for speckled trout. We could make it out there on our bicycles, you see. All of that rubbed off and it kept working its way into my tunes. It’s everywhere. My song “Pussywillows, Cat-tails” — that’s a perfect description of what it’s like there.

Since those days I’ve been out on my sailboat on Georgian Bay. Once I motored right up to the grocery store on Christian Island where I shouldn’t have, and my keel was resting on the bottom by the time I reached the dock. I didn’t have any trouble pulling out, thankfully, but first I just wanted to look around. I knew some people from Christian Island because we used to visit friends with a cottage up there on Cedar Point. We’d all motor over to a restaurant in the western islands together, where they sold the best fish dinners. I still love the taste of that white fish.

Pussy Willows, Cat-tails

Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses
Rainbows in the woodland, water to my knees
Shivering, quivering, the warm breath of spring
Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses

Catbirds and cornfields, daydreams together
Riding on the roadside the dust gets in your eyes
Reveling, disheveling, the summer nights can bring
Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses

Slanted rays and colored days, stark blue horizons
Naked limbs and wheat bins, hazy afternoons
Voicing, rejoicing, the wine cups do bring
Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses

Harsh nights and candlelights, woodfires a-blazin’
Soft lips and fingertips resting in my soul
Treasuring, remembering, the promise of spring
Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses


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