Spooky Songs: Gordon Lightfoot, “If You Could Read My Mind”

Written by Music

I don’t think any other song scared me more as a child than “If You Could Read My Mind,” the moody ballad that became Gordon Lightfoot’s first self-sung hit in the United States (peaking at #5 in 1971). And I heard this song a lot: my father was a big folkie, and when I was a kid, this was still a regular staple on many FM radio stations. So, my indoctrination to this song was swift and total during these formative, psyche-building years. With that in mind, imagine hearing the lyrics to the first verse as a kid, especially at night:

If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old time movie, about a ghost from a wishin’ well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong, with chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free, as long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

Holy. Crap.

Now, being the analytical young chap that I was (and still am), think about what my mind was trying to process here: The guy singing this song…is a ghost….chained up…..in the bottom of a well….and the well is in the middle of a dark (and likely abandoned) castle or fortress.

Add to that the sparse arrangement and production — the lightly finger-picked guitar, the rhythmic heartbeat of the bass, and the swirling strings, which move increasingly higher as each of the verses progress, ending almost as a ghostly whine that doubles with the stark dissolution of the lyrics — lyrics sung by a man whose voice had enough of a natural trill that if you were young, and thought about it enough, you could convince yourself was coming from the living dead.

At least for me, these traumas were being inflicted by the hale and hearty Lightfoot of 1970. Could you imagine being a kid with a similar mindset whose first experience with the song is via the old and sickly Gordon Lightfoot of the 2000s, with a voice withered by the natural aging process and the repercussions of nearly dying in 2002 from a ruptured artery which left him in a coma for two months?

I will say it again: Holy. Crap. Simply put, for a kid who’s more used to “Lemon Tree,” and thought “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a nice song about a kid and a dragon (with no drug allusions), that is some serious mind-blowing going on here. I almost feel like maybe I married a Canadian girl partly to help me defeat the demons inflicted by this troubadour from the frozen north.

Of course, now that I’m older and understand the concepts of metaphors and similes better, I realize that Gordon Lightfoot is not literallya ghost; that this is a song about a broken love (in fact, it is supposed to be a statement about Lightfoot’s divorce). Now, I mostly think It’s a great song: good lyrics, appropriate arrangement. Really beautiful and tear-jerking. Note, though, that I say mostly: there’s still enough of a remainder of my scarred, childhood psyche that the song still occasionally gives me the shivers. But at least now I know what to do when that happens: call my dad and make him feel guilty for playing that song so much when I was young. Take that, childhood trauma!