‘Ottawa’ Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Black Day in July’ About 1967 Detroit Riots Inspires New Art
Nearly 50 years since Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July” hit the airwaves, the once-controversial tune is providing fresh inspiration for a new work by a Canadian visual artist.
Timothy Schmalz created a bronze work of Lightfoot that was unveiled in the music legend’s hometown of Orillia, Ont., last October.
Now, the figurative artist from St. Jacobs, Ont. is adding to his creative tribute to Lightfoot. He has created a sculpture inspired by the singer-songwriter’s “Black Day in July,” which addressed the 1967 race riots in Detroit.
The incident was ignited by a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar. Clashes ensued between residents of largely black neighbourhoods and police, and members of the state police and National Guard were brought in as the protests and violence escalated. The riots lasted five days, leaving 43 dead. Hundreds were injured and thousands arrested, with businesses left looted and burned.
“Black Day in July” was released in 1968. Lightfoot’s lyrics described “Motor City madness” and the chaos that followed proved to be too incendiary for some at the time, with a number of American radio stations banning the track.
“Gordon Lightfoot really is a role model to artists because he had the courage to sing or write about something that other people wouldn’t even want to talk about,” said Schmalz.
The artist’s one-metre high sculpture inspired by “Black Day in July” is cast in bronze and will be displayed on a granite pedestal with the song title carved into the face of the stone. It’s the latest addition to the Gordon Lightfoot Trail in a park in Orillia named for the Canadian icon. The sculpture was officially unveiled on Sunday.
The sculpture is a Maple Leaf that features a scene from Detroit, with smoke rising from the city transforming into clouds. Within the clouds, two outstretched hands — one black, one white — reach out to clasp the other. Hovering above the clouds is a dove.
“It’s really a sculpture that’s meant to bring healing and peace, and I think one of the first steps to that is acknowledging the actual event happened,” said Schmalz.
Schmalz said an exact cast of the piece is bound for Detroit. He plans to have the second sculpture permanently installed in a yet-to-be-determined location in the city next year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the riots.
With the recent police shooting deaths of two black men — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — in the U.S., and the discussion around the Black Lives Matter movement at Toronto’s Pride Parade, Schmalz said the themes explored in Lightfoot’s lyrics remain as relevant as ever.
“As Gordon Lightfoot would sing… ‘Why can’t we all be brothers, why can’t we live in peace.'”