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If You Could Read My Mind

by

Gordon Lightfoot



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

One of Lightfoot's most personal songs, this is about the breakup of his first marriage - a common theme in many of his songs. In the liner notes of his boxed set Songbook, he describes it as "A song about the failure of marriage." (thanks to Valerie at gordonlightfoot.com)
Written in 1969, the song has been recorded more than 100 times, first by Lightfoot himself for Sit Down Young Stranger. The album was not a commercial success, but after the song reached #5 on the US singles chart in 1971, the album was renamed after the song and re-released, reaching #12 in the pop charts. (thanks, Eric - Sandusky, OH)
This song was used in the Canadian feature film Paperback Hero in 1975.
Other recordings include those by Carroll Baker, Glen Campbell, The Bells, Johnny Mathis, Liza Minelli, Barbara Streisand and Andy Williams. Instrumental arrangements have been recorded by Herb Alpert, John Arpin, James Last, The Boss Brass and others. (thanks, Ian - Calgary, Canada, for above 2)
This song is part of the Series 1 soundtrack for Channel 4 TV's Trigger Happy TV which is a quick-fire comedy show featuring prank calls and celebrity gags. (thanks, Sue - Woking, England)
Johnny Cash covered this song on his last album before he died: American V: A Hundred Highways. (thanks, John - Portland, OR)
Gordon Lightfoot
More Gordon Lightfoot songs
More songs covered by Johnny Cash
More songs used in TV shows
More songs used in movies
More songs about marital problems or divorce

Comments (49):

Whether I want to admit it or not (since I'm an 'old-school' hard rocker), string arrangements like the ones in this song, or 'Annie's Song' by John Denver, or 'Lady' by Kenny Rogers - always send chills down my spine. No matter how many times I hear these songs, they affect me like no guitar riff or beautiful voice ever will!
- Dan, Newton, KS
*** 'But the feelin's gone, And I just can't get it back' ***
On February 14th 1971, "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot peaked at #5 (for 3 weeks) on the Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; it had entered the chart on December 20th, 1970 at position #76 and spent 15 weeks on the Top 100 (and for 5 of those 15 weeks it was on the Top 10)
And on the same day it peaked at #5 on the Top 100 it reached #1 (for 1 week) on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Tracks chart...
Not surprisingly, in his native Canada on February 20th, 1971 it peaked at #1 on the RPM Top Singles chart, but only for one week???
Mr. Lightfoot celebrated his 75th birthday three months ago on November 17th (2013).
- Barry, Sauquoit, NY
I remember this song from its original US top forty run. I didn't pay much attention to it at the time. But recently I've started playing guy-with-a-guitar gigs at parties and such, and one of my "fan club" requested it, so I decided to learn it. Not many pop songs are written for baritone voices, so I'm happy to take on a Lightfoot song.

I never really listened to the lyrics before. What a sad and poignant song. I hope I can do it justice.
- Dwasifar, Chicago, IL
I saw Gordon Lightfoot perform this song on Jimmy Fallon last night... He is older, of course, and very thin and frail looking... his voice a bit weak, but wow, it was still a great performance. This song HAUNTS ME. I was 16 when it came out. This is what I know about the song: Lightfoot stated in an interview that the strain of being away from his first wife led to temptations on the road (affairs). I'm paraphrasing but he said that it was only fair to offer the "open marriage" type approach to his wife. (If he was cheating then he should offer her the choice when he was away as well). In the song, I do believe the ghost in the wishing well is the man trapped in the PAST of his old self / his beautiful memories of the beginning of the relationship initial relationship with the woman in the song... The memories of the good times keep him chained to the idea of saving the marriage. But he will never be set free from this ideal as long as his wife cannot see the old him - what they had: Love. In the "old" days when they were in love. (The marriage will never be saved unless she remembers what it was like at the beginning of the relationship and is willing to try and re-capture those days). The next verse, to me, is about the wife having an affair (or could be referencing the man's affair - I'm not clear on that ... it's possible the characters in the song have both drifted and found other partners). The stanzas referencing that she will never read the book again refer to the "hero" she thought of the man as being a hero at the beginning of the relationship. Her prince/ knight in shining honor / hero. "But heroes often fail" acknowledges the males humanness and weaknesses ie: I'm just human and weak "I walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three way script/ enter no 2" to me means there was a love triangle like in old movies - like Casablanca - enter no. 2 refers to the new lover replacing the male Character in the song. "The movie queen who played a scene of bringing all the good things out in me"... perhaps referring to the wife and how he idealized her at the beginning of the relationship. He was her hero and she was a beautiful movie star in his mind that brought all the good qualities out in him in their love relationship. She was at one time so good for him, nourished and enriched and made him a happy, good man... "but for now love lets be real" refers to the fact that that it was a long time ago they felt that way about each other was all in the past and "lets get real" is let's talk about where the relationship is now.... "I never thought I could feel this but I gotta say" ... is finally acknowledging the relationship is finished. Finally, Lightfoot stated recently that he sings different lyrics now when he sings in the song"the feelings that YOU lack" to "the feelings that WE lack." He did this upon the advice from his first marriage. Lightfoot feels it took him 0ver 30 years to get that lyric "right". ( Which supports the idea that the marriage fell apart due to both of the characters/ not just the female character). There are some songs like this that I can play over and over again all day long. I never tire of this song. Can say as I grow older - in my 50's now - seeing my old singer songwriter favorites age is bittersweet... something so beautiful and so saddening.
- mark, PAWLING , NY
The Abbott and Costello movie which inspired the "ghost in a wishing well" line was called "The Time of Their Lives" from 1946.
When I heard the song "If You Could Read My Mind" in my youth in the early 70s, that line always reminded me of the Abbott and Costello movie, but I could never be certain that this was what he was referring to.
Thank you Bill Walker from Massillon, Ohio, for confirming my intuitive hunch from 45 or so years ago!
- Catriel, Bet Shemesh, Israel
His verse "I don't know where we went wrong, but the feeling gone, and I just can't get it back" have haunted my thoughts as something I should better understand. As a I am now experiencing the very same feelings of pain and loss Lightfoot sings about, the same words are now crystal clear for me. How can I tell someone of 40 years that the feelings are gone, and have been gone for decades? Maybe I am now supposed to become the ghost that no one sees too.
- Jack, Arizona, AZ
This hooked me as a Gordo fan. It does deal with love lo9st and the inner remainders of that hurt. He allways had great, majestic melodies, super string sections. He usually had fairly positive, half full lyrics, But he could speak of the hard hurts of life. Also a very smooth voice.
- meocyber, alma, CO
Okay, maybe it's poetic and emotionally deep and rich, but I never cared for Gordon Lightfoot's music or voice.
- Camille, Toronto, OH
Agree with most of you. Their are nuggets of truth sprinkled all over the place in these posts. Perhaps I can add another. As Lightfoot admits, the song deals with his divorce but as we see, much more. To me the Ghost is the key. Who is the ghost? Well, him, of course. But it's more of who he wants to be. The ghost is an archetype: the Romantic Hero, the leading man, the happily ever guy - loyal, brave and true. The word archetype fits well. The movies we see, the novels we read, all support the way a romantic hero should be. For men, these traits are so deeply embedded in us that it becomes part of who we are. Tragically, reality strikes (marriage can do that!). Though there is a hint of infidelity, Lightfoot does not make clear why the relationship failed. The primary reason for the sadness is he must face facts: He cannot be that man. With Chains Upon My Feet, he slogs forward, not willing to let go of, perhaps, the most beautiful part of himself, or who he believed himself to be.
- Tim, Clarkdale, AZ
I could be wrong, but all my life I thought the reference in this song, "Like a ghost from a wishing well" was a reference to the 1937 move Topper. I might be totally wrong, and if I am, sorry.
- Lou, Omaha, NE
my husband remembers watching a movie that this song talks about but he cant find the movie, does anyone know the name of the movie or where i can get further help?
- jennifer, covert, MI
Kristin from L.A.Well said.I'ts nice to read intelligent well thought out comments about music.More All to often peoples comments on songs are just regurgitations of previous comments with no new information or interpretation.Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
- brian, boston, MA
So depressing but so poetic...he sees himself as a ghost...a memory that's not really alive, just walking around half-dead, not sure where to go. He wants her so bad, but she can't even see him. The memory of him is gone in her mind. I feel like him comparing the subject's thoughts to a drugstore novel is sort of a passive-aggressive jab at her. Her thoughts are cheap and superficial. And the whole movie motif seems like he's so hurt by this he can't even deal with the reality of it so he glamorizes it by turning it into some scripted production.
- Kristin, Los Angeles, CA
This is an incredible song!You can feel the emotion in this song. Can anyone write like this today? This song makes me think.I think about a lot of things when I hear this song.My youth, the imagry that Gordon sings of ghosts from a wishing well.You can feel his sadness.I really can't say enough about this song.Also just a thought If anyone ever played Gordon in a movie Brian Cranston. Am I right big time resemblence
- brian, boston, MA
Hey Stormy, it's more like Bob Dylan is the American Gordon Lightfoot and Carly Simon is the American Joni Mitchell. Bob Dylan has always said that Gordon Lightfoot has been one of his biggest influences and he wishes he could write songs like Gord. Carly Simon's style of music seems to be more in line with Joni Mitchell's than Ann Murray's. All in all though, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, and Ann Murray are one of a kind talents that have left an indelible mark on music.
- Brad, Archer Lodge, NC
If they had a list for "mellow" songs...this one would make #1.....fantastic vocals,music and wordage!!!!!!!!
- Rick, Belfast, ME
When I was sixteen the song had been released for a couple of years . I truly didn't understand it until I lost a love. So melancholy and so beautiful,
the message so simple, you can not know love until you have lost a dear love. Once it is gone you can not go back. All you have is the wonder of it and the strange sense of joy and loss. Few perfect songs in my life, this was one if them. Perfect.
- threetoedpete, Katy, TX
From a Toronto Star article ..
"An empty house, a broken marriage and a summer afternoon served as the creative spark for Gordon Lightfoot as he penned what would become one of his most iconic tunes.

The illustrious singer-songwriter says the words to "If You Could Read My Mind," released 40 years ago, came to him in a couple of hours in a vacant Toronto home that was up for sale at a time when he was experiencing marital problems.

"I was of course going through some emotional trauma leading up to a separation, so that of course manifested itself in that particular song on that particular afternoon," Lightfoot, 71, said by phone from his Toronto home.

"I'll never forget the afternoon."
- Steven, Toronto, ON
fantastic song. my all time favourite. just watched Gordon sing this on you tube and cannot believe how gorgeous he was, definately had me all of a flutter..whatever interpretation we put on the lyrics its gordons deep melodic voice that sends me into raptures every single time i play it. he fits my idea of an hero, he could rescue me anyday, even if he is now in his 70s. x
- pat, yorkshire, United Kingdom
I too believe this song to be about his marriage breaking up.
if you could read my mind, love,
What a tale my thoughts could tell.
Just like an old time movie,
'Bout a ghost from a wishing 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.

I think his wife didn't see him and who he was so she cheated on him at least once (maybe more)and he had to be quiet about this or strong for her afterwards (the affair being over) Ithink the wishing well part was him wishing she would change.

If I could read your mind, love,
What a tale your thoughts could tell.
Just like a paperback novel,
The kind the drugstores sell.
Then you reached the part where the heartaches come,
The hero would be me.
But heroes often fail,
And you won't read that book again
Because the ending's just too hard to take!

Paperback novels are full of romance like an affair and many women love them but the end does come.

I'd walk away like a movie star
Who gets burned in a three way script.
Enter number two:
A movie queen to play the scene
Of bringing all the good things out in me.
But for now, love, let's be real;
I never thought I could feel this way
And I've got to say that I just don't get it.
I don't know where we went wrong,
But the feeling's gone
And I just can't get it back.


I think he then went out and had an affair himself in these last lines and felt another woman brought the good things out in him hence his mention of act/feel this way and his feeling for his wife then died. I have always loved this song. It is just one I never get tired of hearing.
- eve, Washington DC, MD
I have loved this song for most of my life. Bittersweet memories, great singing voice, lovely tune, and Gord's guitar. Music doesn't get any better than this!
- Debra, lees summit, MO
I was always told that Canadians consider Gordon Lightfoot to be the "Canadian Bob Dylan" and that Ann Murray is considered the "Canadian Carly Simon". If you listen to their words and music it makes sense.
- Stormy, Kokomo, IN
Said many times, but this one still moves me to tears. Funny, when I was a child and had no clue about heartache and trying to understand egress from a relationship, it meant nothing. I can't begin to imagine writing about pain while feeling it.

Larry Carr, NC
- Larry, Fayetteville, NC
No one here has yet mentioned that two different versions of this song exist, and that one is as likely to hear one as the other...

Again, from gordonlightfoot.com:

"For the single, the record company added harmony vocals, also sung by Lightfoot. Both the album version, without the harmony vocals, and the single version are available on CD today; the album version is on the Songbook boxed set as well as the original album (renamed to match the hit tune), and the single version is on both Gord's Gold and Complete Greatest Hits."

So many folks I know are so inclined to sing the harmony on this one that they never realized there were two distinct versions!
- Tony, Vero Beach, FL
He sings like an ancient bard in that rhythmic hi and low, hi and low. I feel connected to a primordial past, as I hear this song, where the tribe sat around the bonfire listening with wild eyes and bated breath to the man in the middle passing on those moments of lore that should be remembered for future generations. Also, I sense strong feelings of isolation and distance and coldness in his words. And, just when it seems to be-coming warm and close, it's cut off, to fall back to the "fortress strong." Reminiscent of Pink Floyd's THE WALL concept. He is unable to connect to the living, in-the-flesh warmth of others. "I never thought I could feel this way
And I've got to say that I just don't get it." He is hurt and alone, and expressing this, he has created a beautiful art, a gift for us all. Yeah, I love this song. I just now listened to it for the first time. I am blown away. The whole song comes together into an original, talented piece that begs to be played one more time.
- Jeff, Casa Grande, AZ
this was at the ending credits of the movie " Wonderland"..good song
- SUSAN, TAMPA, FL
Possibly one the best written songs i have ever heard, and like most of us here, i grew up listening to it because my mom (family) had it playing...I would like to comment on what I think he was feeling as he wrote it, though I have found little information about it...All I could find was that he wrote it in reference to the divorce of his first marriage....But anyone who has ever had a bad break-up feels the same..."If you could read my mind" is the perfect opening and explanation of this song...The person he is talking about (his exwife) can't read his mind, nor can he express himself to her in a way that she will understand...Maybe he doesn't know how, or maybe she won't listen, but in the end, he only wishes she could read his mind...."What a tale my thoughts could tell..Just like an old time movie..."...This and the rest of this verse talk about how movies paint a pretty picture of an antagonist facing a dilemna and having a happy ending (and if you know the lyrics, this is not the case in this song)..."If I could read your mind love...What a tale your thoughts could tell..." ...This line hits me (personally) and I connect to it in that the woman has a past that prevents her from "reading his mind"...And because of some fault (whether he could avert it or not)...She refuses to go back and try and fix it with him ("heroes often fail...you wont read that book again...")....Now the next part is tricky, but I feel I understand where he is coming from..."Id walk away like a movie star...Who gets burned in a three way script....."...Here, I think he is wishing what will happen...He walks away, and a second woman enters the scene that understands him, but in the end, he wants to be real and not fantasize ("But for now love, lets be real")....But the hardest part is the last influential line: "I dont know where we went wrong...But the feelings gone...And I just cant get it back"...This is where he comes to realize that its over and he can't fix things, no matter what...I do love one last line from the end though: "And if you read between the lines...You'll know that Im just tryin to understand....The feelings that you lack"...Anyone who has been on the wrong end of a breakup, well, there is no need for explanation here...Hopefully this all made it through and made sense...This song chokes me up everytime i hear it
- billis, anytown usa, MA
Gordon Lightfoot is one of the greatest song writers that I have ever listened to. His music is poetry to my ears. I never get tired of listening to his music. If you could read my mind is my favourite.
- Gale, Trenton, ON
I first heard this song in 70s while spending a summer in Canada. It's always been "my" song. During the birth of my daughter in 1992 this song was playing in the backgroud (doc's cd). Fate? Maybe.
- Naomi, Lynn Haven, FL
This is one of those songs that make me cry everytime.It feels like a knife through my heart,yet I love the song.
- Chris, Chicago, IL
In response to "rudycito, Fort Lauderdale, FL"
The lyric is as follows:
"I will never be set free as long as I'm a ghost you CAN'T see."

I think it means that he will remain the way he is, living with his heartache, living as a memory, as a ghost, until he gets back together with her. So he'll never be set free, as long as he's a ghost that she can't see
- Justin, Green Bay, WI
enter number 2 refers to another woman who brings out all of the good qualities he has in him.My take on it anyway
- Carol, Victoria, BC
I think Glen from NY is so right on with his comment.
- James, Lincoln, NE
It's such a soft-sounding song that even my Basset hound would fall asleep while listening to it. In fact, she would do that while a whole Gord's CD is being played, the music is that relaxing.
- Julia, Knoxville, TN
Joep -

That part of the song, as I interperet it, is the narator speaking of how he wishes their relationship would be... note the following lyrics, "...but for now love lets be real...", he wishes their relationship could be like it is in the movies, but back to reality, life isn't a glamorous, or as easy as it is in the movies...

Of course that's only my oppinion, I could be wrong.
- Vincent, Detroit, MI
dark rainy winter nights in Portland Oregon. The heater on. My mom playing this song til she wore it out.
- Heather, Los Angeles, CA
I talked to Gordon after a concert at the Front Row Theater near Cleveland in the 1980's. During the conversation he stated that he liked to write his music while drifting alone in a boat. I mentioned that a phrase in the song reminded me of Abbott & Costello movie where Costello whas a ghost trapped near a wishing well. Gordon confirmed that that moview was the inspiration for the song's phrase.

- Bill Walker, Massillon, Ohio
- William, Massillon, OH
I've long found it fascinating that particular sounds (i.e. music) can evoke emotional responses in humans. This particular song makes me feel melancholy every time. It's quite a different phenomena than a song reminding you of a time and place; this one came out before I was born.

I agree with Gordie from PA, it is a masterpiece of unaccompanied guitar with a beautiful evocative lyric.
- Marlon, Edmonton, Canada
This song is about the projection of the false self. The three way script is a triange of sorts. There's her, there's his false self that he shows to others, and the real self that he keeps hidden from others as well as himself. It's very deep actually.
I'm pretty sure it has to with a personality disorder, such as Borderline. In the interior, he is a tortured soul, and will remain that way until he can connect with his real self. Until then he will not be able to truly connect with another. And will relive the same story over and over again. Because he connot maintain the projection forever.
He will never be set free unless he can connect to his real self. The "movie" is a metaphore where he is the hero, but it is NOT real.
It's really very sad.
I hope this helps.
- Glenn, Huntington, NY
Yes it does! Thanks Brad! I'll appreciate the song even more next time I hear it!
- Joep, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Joep, I've always heard that a three way script is a movie about a love triangle, in this case, it would be one woman and two men. "Enter number two" means that the second man has entered the picture, thus the woman has fallen in love with another man. This could explain the line "I don't know were we went wrong but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back". It seems that the narrator in this song is heartbroken because his lover has found another and he just cannot forgive her. Don't know if this is right, but it seems to make sense to me. Only Gord knows the true meaning of this song, but in my opinion, it seems to be about heartbreak and trying to move on. Hope this helps Joep.
- Brad, Wendell, NC
Could someone explain this part to me?
Who gets burned in a three way script
Enter number two
A movie queen to play the scene
Of bringing all the good things out in me
- Joep, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Question: Is it -can- or -can't- on: "I could never be set free as long as I am a ghost that you ____ see." >>>

- If I am a ghost that you can see, then I am not a ghost but every time you see me you will re-state me as a ghost and I will never be set free.

- If I am a ghost that you can't see, then I will remain a ghost and will never be set free.


I am very puzzled here and I have found conflicting versions on just these words.
- rudycito, Fort Lauderdale, FL
This is about a love gone sour. The use of the ghosts is about what was past. I've always loved this song.

Mary, Yuma, AZ
- Mary, Yuma, AZ
Not nearly enough props are being given here. Anyone who ever sat down with a guitar and a pen and paper would make a deal with the devil to come away with this masterpiece.
- Gordie, Philadelphia, PA
Johnny Cash covered this for his first post-mortum album, American 5: A Hundred Highways. Like most of Cash's covers, it seems a little more personal.
- Eric, Milltown, IN
Pretty song...kind of mushy chick song...but i'd cover it
- frank, Morenci , AZ
Also, relative to "Wonderland," supposedly John Holmes used to sing the song to his girlfriend, Dawn, and that's why the song is used in the movie.
- louis, youngstown, OH
The song also plays at the end (and over the credits) of the 2003 Val Kilmer movie, "Wonderland." Strangely, the song fits with some of the themes of the movie. Particularly, the following: When you reach the part where the heartaches come, The hero would be me,But heroes often fail, And you wont read that book again, Because the endings just too hard to take.
- louis, youngstown, OH
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