Canadian Singer/Songwriter Gordon Lightfoot is best known for writing hits including “Sundown”, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, “Carefree Highway”, “Early Morning Rain” and “If You Could Read My Mind”. In a career spanning five decades, twenty studio albums and several “best of”, “greatest hits” or “Gord’s Gold” compilations there is a bottomless well of lesser-known Gordon Lightfoot songs which meet the high songwriting standards set by his well-known hits. In this first of a series of articles dedicated to this brilliant songwriter’s not-so greatest hits we will take a look at “Circle of Steel” and examine what makes this piece so timeless and important.
Recorded for Gordon Lightfoot’s breakthrough album “Sundown” in 1974 the song “Circle of Steel” represents another side of Lightfoot’s songwriting. While Gordon’s subject matter often involves love, lost love, nature, journeys, self-realization etc., “Circle of Steel” takes us to the inner city at Christmas time. And what we find is not exactly what one expects to hear during the holiday season. Yes, there are some “sounds of the season” and there is snowfall and there are even references to Christmas morning and family heirlooms. But this particular “holiday song” paints a more realistic picture of what some Christmases are like in certain places.
The song’s beautiful opening features Lightfoot’s recognizable finger-picking on acoustic guitar to the sound of a recorder blowing the melody of the song’s impending verses. The lyrics provide the perfect mood for a Christmas song as Lightfoot sings “High windows flickerin’ down through the snow. A time you know. Sights and sounds of the people goin’ ’round, everybody’s in step with the season.” However it does not take long for the mood to shift as Lightfoot cleverly brings us into one apartment in particular. The home of a “welfare case” where Gordon notes “the rats run around like they own the place…”
So we find ourselves in the apartment of a family struggling on welfare at Christmas time. But apparently the next door neighbors aren’t having an easy time either. Lightfoot paints the picture of the song “Deck the Halls” coming through the walls of “the flat next door where they shout all day. She tips her gin bottle back till it’s gone. The child is strong. A week, a day they will take it away for they know about all her bad habits.”
The song’s final verse finds the mother explaining to her child why their father is in jail: “Your father’s pride was his means to provide and he’s serving three years for that reason…” before the song resolves by repeating the opening verse. As listeners we find ourselves a bit stunned (for lack of a better term) as we have just been treated to a very catchy melody, an-almost “happy” mood, sounds of the recorder (courtesy of wind-player Jack Zaza) and a holiday “vibe”. Yet these musical “treats” are balanced by the lyrics which paint a very real (and gloomy) picture. In essence, Lightfoot has musically “tricked” us into thinking about something real during the holidays.
By taking honest and real subject matter and juxtaposing it against an upbeat, happy or “positive” melody Gordon Lightfoot is able to send Circle of Steel’s serious and intense message and make the listener actually enjoy receiving it. Next time you consider burning a Christmas “mix” CD consider adding “Circle of Steel.” This song’s message is important, real, universal and would most certainly cause anybody (with a soul) to take pause. The key to great songwriting…