'A big part of my life': Orillia mourns hometown legend Gordon Lightfoot
ORILLIA, Ont. — It didn't take long for the flowers to appear at the statue of Gordon Lightfoot in his Ontario hometown.
The legendary folk musician, claimed by the City of Orillia as its "favourite son," died of natural causes at a Toronto hospital on Monday at the age of 84.
Barely 24 hours later, Orillia residents stopped by the bronze sculpture of Lightfoot that stands in a city park to pay their respects.
Cam Gardy, who brought yellow flowers to lay at the base of the statue, said his mother went to school with the musician and would tell tales of how he'd perform for students.
"He has been a part of my life as I have grown up," Gardy said, adding that while he never met Lightfoot personally, he had been to one of his concerts.
"Mr. Lightfoot is iconic, not only to the residents and the city but obviously to the people across Canada."
Lightfoot put Orillia on the map, Gardy said, and was an "incredible ambassador" for the city.
"He always spoke of his town fondly," Gardy said.
Joanna Bell, who brought a rose to place at the statue, said she cried when she woke up to news of Lightfoot's death on Tuesday morning.
“Gordon Lightfoot was a big part of my life, my childhood,” she said, adding that she is one of seven siblings. “He was loved by all of us, and of course he wrote the most beautiful music.”
Lightfoot's music brings to mind the beauty of Canada, she said.
"He is such a well-respected Canadian," she said. "That is why I came today, I felt compelled to come."
Heather Placken, who said she's been a fan of Lightfoot's for 40 years, said she only learned of the singer's death when walking by the entrance of the Orillia park hosting his statue – an announcement had been posted by the entrance.
"I feel really honoured and grateful that I had the opportunity to see him here last summer," she said.
Lightfoot was more than just a songwriter and musician, she said.
"Every song he has ever written and sang, it tells a story of something significant that everyone of us can relate,” she said.
"He was an amazing individual and for Canadians, to have somebody of that stature to look up to in the music industry is phenomenal."
Lightfoot was born in Orillia in 1938, sang in a church choir as a boy and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician.
He later emerged from Toronto's Yorkville folk club scene in the 1960s, and went on to record more than 20 studio albums and hundreds of songs, including "Early Morning Rain," "Carefree Highway" and "Sundown."
Orillia Mayor Don McIsaac said Lightfoot was highly regarded in the city.
"His homecoming concerts at the Orillia Opera House and appearances at the Mariposa Folk Festival have always been celebrated by Orillians as they welcomed him home," the mayor wrote in a statement.
"Many of us who knew him will remember his soft-spoken demeanor, generous personality and infectious laugh."
There are reminders of Lightfoot throughout Orillia, McIsaac said, noting that the singer's name graces a city auditorium stage and a trail, while a bust of him sits at the Orillia Opera House, in addition to the sculpture honouring him in the city's J.B. Tudhope Memorial Park.
"His deep roots in our city are woven into the fabric of Orillia," McIsaac said. "Our community is mourning together along with the rest of the world."
The city has lowered its flags to half-mast, the mayor said. Books of condolences for the music icon are available at the Orillia Opera House and Orillia City Centre.
A concert tour to celebrate Lightfoot's music had been set to begin on Saturday, on the stage named after him at the Orillia Opera House. It will still go ahead, with the show's creator saying she hopes it will serve as a celebration of Lightfoot's music and life.
"My band and I were huge fans of Gordon Lightfoot. The reason that we created this concert is because his music has impacted all of our lives so much," Leisa Way said in an interview.
"He's just shaped who I am as a Canadian, certainly growing up in northern Ontario, and now it will be very emotional for all of us."
Way said the concert, called Early Morning Rain: The Legend of Gordon Lightfoot, had premiered for three weeks in February 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic meant it had to stop.
She said she hopes Saturday's concert will be a special event for the residents of Orillia.
"There's nothing that Gordon Lightfoot would love more than knowing that audiences are getting together in theaters and singing along to all of his songs," she said. "I think he'll be smiling down on us."
- with files from Maan Alhmidi in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.
Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press