The Sad Inspiration Behind Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind

Many American listeners were introduced to Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot through the song "If You Could Read My Mind." It appeared on Lightfoot's 1970 album, which in later editions carried the same name as the composition. It was also the first Lightfoot single to reach the Billboard charts in the U.S. On Monday, May 1, 2023, Lightfoot died at the age of 84 in a Toronto hospital. When his death was announced, no cause of death was given, PBS NewsHour reports.

Despite all the success Lightfoot had with the hit song, it was inspired by a sad period in the musician's life: the dissolution of his first marriage, as Lightfoot himself revealed in 1998 while speaking with Performing Songwriter. At that time, Lightfoot said, "'If You Could Read My Mind' was written about the events that happened when I was getting divorced from my first wife. I'd just moved to the country, to a little farm, and signed with a new label, and the marriage was breaking up. I drank quite a bit too, until 1982, when I gave it up."

Lightfoot's daughter contributed lyrics

Already themed around the breakup of Gordon Lightfoot's marriage, he also told Perfoming Songerwiter that some of the song's most moving lyrics were suggested by his young daughter. On the topic of the lyrical content, Lightfoot said, "There's a line in the song that goes 'If you read between the lines, you'll know that I'm just trying to understand the feeling that you lack.'"

Lightfoot said his daughter, who was just a girl at the time, "heard the song and asked me 'Don't you lack any feelings, daddy?' She got me to change the line to 'the feelings that we lack.' She said I was putting the whole onus of the divorce on her mother." The musician later remarried and is survived by his wife Kim Hasse, six children, and many grandchildren, according to NBC News. Since its 1970 release, "Read My Mind" has become one of Lightfoot's most covered compositions.

'Read My Mind' was also involved in a lawsuit

In addition to numerous cover versions, Gordon Lightfoot's iconic song and first U.S. hit — "If You Could Read My Mind" — was also involved in a lawsuit, according to a 2015 Lightfoot interview with In 1985, Whitney Houston's single "The Greatest Love of All" was on the charts. And in Lightfoot's opinion, a certain section of Houston's song veered too close to his own songwriting.

In that interview, Lightfoot remembered, "I actually initiated a lawsuit for plagiarism but three weeks later I let it go because I understood that it was affecting Whitney Houston who had an appearance coming up at the Grammy Awards and the suit wasn't anything to do with her. The suit was against her producer (and the song's co-writer), Michael Masser." Masser later apologized for his song's similarities (via the CBC).

Only a few weeks before he died, Lightfoot canceled all his U.S. and Canadian tour dates for undisclosed health issues. In 2002, Lightfoot experienced a stomach aneurysm and time spent in a coma. In the years following that incident, Lightfoot underwent a series of surgeries and a minor stroke, among other health challenges, according to the Vancouver Sun. The sad time in his life that inspired "Read My Mind" was never far from his mind, though. In 2010, the singer said he'd never forget when the song was written (via Toronto Star).