Hello there! This week our blog features a great folk-pop song, Early Morning Rain. We will first discuss the version by songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Next, we will review a cover of this song by Ian & Sylvia, and we will finish with a cover by Peter, Paul & Mary.
Gordon Lightfoot and Early Morning Rain:
Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian folk-rock artist whose career has spanned nearly 60 years. He was born in 1938 in Orillia, Ontario, where he began performing as a boy soprano and then attended music school at both McGill University and the University of Toronto.
In 1958, Gordon moved to L.A. in the hopes of making his mark in the field of folk music. To make ends meet, he cut demo records, and wrote and produced commercial jingles. However, he really missed his homeland, so he returned to Canada in 1960.
Below is a photo of a young Gordon Lightfoot, before he grew his signature facial hair.Embed from Getty Images
Gordon Lightfoot wrote Early Morning Rain in 1964, based on memories of the time when he was working in Los Angeles. Homesick for his native Canada, he would frequently drive out to L.A. International Airport, hang out by the runways watching the planes, and imagine himself catching a flight back to Canada.
Early Morning Rain recounts the feelings of a man standing at an airport watching planes take off. He is missing his loved one while regretting his drinking and womanizing. His beloved is taking off on a flight, leaving him alone and blue.
In the early mornin’ rain
With a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart
And my pockets full of sand
I’m a long ways from home
And I miss my loved one so
In the early mornin’ rain
With no place to go.
Out on runway number nine
Big 707 set to go
Well I’m stuck here on the grass
Where the pavement never grows
Now the liquor tasted good
And the women all were fast
There she goes my friend
She’ll be rolling down at last
Although Gordon Lightfoot would become one of Canada’s best-loved folksingers, his initial success was as a songwriter. In 1964, Ian & Sylvia recorded two of his songs, Early Morning Rain and For Lovin’ Me. And one year later, Peter Paul & Mary recorded both of those songs, which gave Lightfoot terrific exposure.
Then in 1965, Gordon signed on with super-agent Albert Grossman. Note that Grossman represented all three of the artists in today’s post! One year later, Lightfoot released his debut album Lightfoot! That album featured Gordon’s own versions of the songs For Lovin’ Me and Early Morning Rain, among other acclaimed songs.
So here is Gordon Lightfoot with a live version of Early Morning Rain.
Isn’t this a great song? Gordon Lightfoot has a terrific voice for folk music. He accompanies himself strumming on his twelve-string acoustic guitar while his long-time accompanist Red Shea is finger-picking in the background.
By 1970, Gordon Lightfoot had become an internationally famous folksinger. And almost uniquely, he accomplished this while remaining in Canada. However, despite the commercial success of his albums and the critical acclaim for his music, Gordon’s early work never produced a hit single.
So in 1970, Lightfoot jumped from United Artists to Warner Bros. Records. Almost immediately, his song If You Could Read My Mind became a million-selling single. This was followed up with a series of major hits, including the 1974 single Sundown, which reached #1 on the Billboard pop charts.
From 1970 until the present, Gordon Lightfoot has continued as one of our most highly-regarded folk singer-songwriters. He has had some significant health issues, including an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002 that left him in a coma for six weeks, and a stroke in 2006 that required him to re-learn to play guitar afterwards.
However, Gordon Lightfoot still continues to perform. He is one of the few artists whom Bob Dylan credits as an inspiration, saying:
“I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Everytime I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever…. I think he probably still is [a mentor] to this day”.
To Dylan’s testimonial, we say “Amen.”
Ian & Sylvia and Early Morning Rain:
Ian Tyson came out of British Columbia with the ambition to be a rodeo rider. However, in the mid-50s he sustained a serious injury, and taught himself how to play the guitar while convalescing. While performing at coffeehouses in Toronto, he met the young folksinger Sylvia Fricker. Eventually they began performing as a duo, and in 1962 they got married and moved to New York’s folk music scene. Below is a picture of a very young Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker.Embed from Getty Images
In New York Ian & Sylvia were discovered by mega-agent Albert Grossman. We have previously encountered Grossman, who at this time was managing Peter, Paul and Mary. Shortly after that, Grossman would also manage Bob Dylan and, as noted earlier, Gordon Lightfoot. Grossman secured a recording contract for Ian & Sylvia with Vanguard Records.
Ian & Sylvia wrote and recorded some lovely and memorable folk songs. The song Four Strong Winds was a gigantic hit in Canada; in fact, a poll taken in 2005 by the CBC ranked this the best Canadian song of all time. However, many of their best songs became hits after they were covered by other groups. For example, You Were On My Mind and Someday Soon became major hits for We Five and Judy Collins, respectively.
Like many artists in the mid to late 60s, Ian & Sylvia turned to folk-rock music. In 1969 they formed an electric folk-rock band, Great Speckled Bird. Although their electric recordings were critically acclaimed, this never turned into a commercial success, at least partly due to serious distribution problems suffered by their record label.
By 1975, Ian & Sylvia had stopped performing together, and shortly after that they divorced. Following that, Ian continued a part-time singing career, but also returned to ranching, while Sylvia continued to write and perform.
In 1986, an Ian & Sylvia reunion concert was held in Toronto. This was an eagerly anticipated event in Canada, where the duo had been major folk-pop heroes, but had not performed together since their divorce in 1975.
This concert featured several artists who had written songs for Ian & Sylvia or had performed their songs. This included folk stars Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot and Emmylou Harris.
So here are Ian & Sylvia singing Early Morning Rain at their 1986 reunion concert.
I love Ian Tyson’s great folk-country vocals – he’s a bona fide Canadian cowboy. And he and Sylvia are a terrific duo. After the first two verses, they are joined by fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot.
The pace of this song by Ian & Sylvia is considerably slower than Gordon Lightfoot’s own version. But I really enjoy seeing Gordon join Ian and Sylvia at their reunion concert.
For several years Ian and Sylvia Tyson were a great singing-songwriting duo, and they left us with some memorable country-folk tunes. We wish each of them the best.
Peter, Paul & Mary and Early Morning Rain:
Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were folksingers in New York City in the late 1950s, and Noel Stookey was an aspiring stand-up comedian who had journeyed from the Midwest to the Big Apple. The legendary manager Albert Grossman auditioned several musicians for the purpose of assembling a folk-singing group.
Grossman hand-picked these three, ordered Noel Stookey to change his name to Paul, and rehearsed the group for several months in Boston and Miami. Following their rehearsals, he brought the group back to Greenwich Village and checked them into the Bitter End coffee house.
Below is a photo of Peter, Paul and Mary, appearing at an event for Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968.Embed from Getty Images
The group released their debut album in 1963, and it immediately became a commercial bombshell. The album, packed with hit singles such as If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, shot up to #1 on the Billboard album list, remained in the top 10 for ten months, and eventually was certified double platinum.
I remember vividly first hearing their album and subsequently seeing them perform. Their music was compelling, with their tight harmonies complemented by Yarrow and Stookey’s guitars and an upright bass. Visually they were quite striking, with Yarrow and Stookey’s dark-haired beatnik visages offset by Travers’ platinum-blond hair and stunning good looks.
Although the three folksingers had been assembled into a group by Albert Grossman, they quite genuinely assumed a leadership position in the folk-protest movement. Their first major performance in that role was at the August 1963 March on Washington best known for Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. There they sang If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind.
This was followed by fifty years of performing and social activism. The group broke up in 1970 but reunited in 1978. They then continued to perform together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009 from leukemia. I saw the group a couple of times in the mid-60s and once much later on. It was always a great joy to hear their signature renditions of folk song classics. In addition, the trio displayed genuine affection for one another.
In November 1969 I took part in the anti-Vietnam War march on Washington, DC, along with roughly a million of my close friends (desperate to disparage the anti-war movement, the Nixon administration estimated the crowd at 100,000). Peter, Paul & Mary performed there and my recollection is that they sang If I Had a Hammer and possibly also This Land Is Your Land. Peter Yarrow was one of the organizers of that event, whose performers included Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra who played a Beethoven quartet, and the cast of Hair.
So here are Peter, Paul & Mary in a live performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain. This took place at a 1966 televised concert, Tonight In Person.
You can see why Peter, Paul & Mary were folk superstars. Their performance is extremely polished. While Peter and Paul provide competent finger-picking on guitar, they give a subdued take on the Gordon Lightfoot song, highlighted by their signature three-part harmony.
Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey have continued to perform on occasion following Mary Travers’ death. What an endearing combination of musical talent and political activism. I continue to listen to my old PP&M albums with great affection.