‘We wish him fair winds and following seas’: Folk

TRAVERSE CITY — People around the world are celebrating the life and work of prolific Canadian folk songwriter and performer Gordon Lightfoot, who died Monday at the age of 84.

Lightfoot, whose works Billy Joel called “the heart of Canada,” nurtured a special connection with fans and friends in the Grand Traverse region.

Lightfoot’s first appearance in the area was October 1976 at a venue known as the Glacier Dome, or sometimes the Glacier Arena, on Barlow Street. The show took place just months after the release of Lightfoot’s single “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which told the story of the disaster on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.

The wreck of the freighter took the lives of all 29 men aboard, including two from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City – one a cadet and the other an alumnus.

At the 5,000-seat arena, Lightfoot announced, and later established, a scholarship fund in honor of the GLMA members who died. He contributed annually to it from the song’s royalties. He also allowed the song to be used in a film in exchange for donations to Northwestern Michigan College.

“We are grateful for the support Lightfoot offered NMC, GLMA, the cadets and the maritime industry. His legacy and support to future cadets lives on. We wish him fair winds and following seas,” said Nick Nissley, NMC president, in a press release Tuesday.

NMC recognized Lightfoot’s contributions through the years by bestowing the college’s highest honor: He was named a fellow in 1989.

In 2008, Lightfoot also was presented the Admiral Willard J. Smith Meritorious Service Award, which is given to individuals who have significantly contributed to GLMA, according to Diana Fairbanks, NMC’s vice president of communications.

One local fan’s devotion prompted a 2022 documentary called “Lightheaded: A Gordon Lightfoot State of Mind.”

It was a family affair, inspired by John Corcoran’s lifelong fandom, directed by his daughter Baylee Kahlon, with music produced by son Brady Corcoran, who is NMC’s audio technology program coordinator.

Work on the project began in 2016 and the documentary premiered last spring.

“Gordon was able to see the finished film last year at a screening in Toronto, a night I will never forget and one of the proudest of my career,” said Brady Corcoran. “The memory of him sitting next to my dad and pulling out the tissues more than once made all of the long hours on the road and in the editing room more than worth the effort.”

“My kids grew up with the music; all three of them did,” John Corcoran said. “The two oldest ones really traveled around the country with me and really got to know Gord well.”

John Corcoran began calling Lightfoot a friend after meeting him in 1989. He estimated that he had seen Lightfoot perform more than 400 times, starting with a show at Michigan State University in the early ‘70s.

“It’s been the joy of my life to have been a part of Gordon’s orbit for over 50 years. It’s been an amazing ride and I’m going to miss it — I’m going to miss him terribly,” he said.

“Lightheaded” is coming to streaming platforms in late May or early June. It will be screened July 11 at the State Theater in Traverse City.

“I’ve never met a man with a more relentless work ethic, and yet he never once gave the impression that he was in it for the glory, for his ego,” said Brady Corcoran. “I simply don’t have the words right now to express how much he has meant to me, to my family, and to the millions of people around the world that have been impacted by his music.”

The Gordon Lightfoot Tribute will return to Grand Traverse Pavilions on July 27, one stop on a still-growing tour itinerary this summer and fall.

The act is headed by Mike Fornes, who performs sets selected from 76 Lightfoot titles. Fornes has been bringing Lightfoot’s music to Northern Michigan stages for more than 15 years.

“He was very good to me. The guys in his band were very good to me. And they’ve certainly blessed what we’re doing in trying to keep his music going,” Fornes said. “They’re wonderful people who really encouraged us and that helped a lot.”

A Mackinaw City resident who also is known in the region as a broadcast journalist and writer, Fornes and his collaborators have meticulously recreated the arrangements and instrumentation used by Lightfoot’s band.

“I’m not Gordon Lightfoot, but I try to portray his show in such a way that, by combining the songs that we play and the stories that I tell about the songs, we try to bring the audience a little closer to him,” he said. “When people come out to see us, that’s our goal.”

Lightfoot was no stranger to that feeling of closeness with audiences, which kept him on the road regularly until shortly before his death.

“I asked him why he didn’t just cash in and kick back, since clearly he didn’t need the money or the fame,” Corcoran said. “He told me that touring and ‘giving back to the fans’ was the ‘carrot on the stick’ that he never got tired of chasing, even after 60-plus years of doing it full time.”

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