Ian Tyson, a towering figure in Canadian music who found his greatest fame as one half of the ’60s folk-singing duo Ian and Sylvia, died Thursday at age 89. The cause of death was attributed to “ongoing health complications”.
Ian and Sylvia’s most famous song, the Tyson-penned “Four Strong Winds”, released in 1963, became a folk standard. It has been covered by dozens of artists over the past six decades, including Neil Young (on his “Comes a Time” album), Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Teenage Fanclub, The Carter Family, Marian Faithful, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Baer, Gillian Welch and Connor Oberst. In 2005, CBC listeners voted “Four Strong Winds” the most essential Canadian musical.
In the early 1960s Tyson began singing as Ian and Sylvia with his future wife Sylvia Fricker, and they became an important part of the New York folk scene alongside emerging figures such as Dylan, whose manager Albert Grossman took them on, as they were signed to the Vanguard label. The two singers married in 1965 and divorced in 1975 after releasing 13 albums together. (They are often cited as the closest analog to the fictional “Mitch and Mickey” singing in the satirical film “A Mighty Wind”.)
In the very early ’60s, original material was not considered essential in the New York folk scene, even though Dylan’s first album consisted mostly of covers. Recalling how Tyson suddenly turned big in 1962, how Dylan sang “Blowin’ Me in the Wind”—he wrote it. And I thought: ‘I can do this’ … He wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and the next day I wrote ‘Four Strong Winds’.”
After the martial and professional split between Ian and Sylvia in the 70s, Tyson reinvented himself in Canada, devoted to the ranching lifestyle in a small town near Alberta, and focused more on western styles as a solo artist, often cowboy. -Themed music. It wasn’t a complete left turn, musically, given that Ian and Sylvia shifted their base to Nashville for a period in the late ’60s and formed the country-rock group Speckled Birds.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy — not a songwriter or a singer, but a cowboy. I just got lucky in the music business,” Tyson told the Cowboy Showcase website in 2008.
In a 2009 interview with Folkworks’ Terry Rowland, Tyson added, “It feels like I’ve had two careers.” It was kind of nice. But I found a way to bring back Ian and Sylvia music in my recent shows. You can’t just drop all that, it has to be there somehow. … I was identified as Ian and Sylvia. My acceptance came after I reinvented myself in an authentic way. I became so familiar with that period of my career that it was difficult to step out of its shadow. But, finally, I was able to move on.”
Tyson didn’t just adopt a rural lifestyle in later life. He participated in the rodeo circuit for several years starting at age 18 and did not begin his music career until age 24. In Vancouver, he was the rhythm guitarist in a rockabilly band called the Sensational Stripes, which he recalls sharing a. Bill with Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Laverne Baker and Paul Anka in Vancouver in 1956.
Ian and Sylvia gained mainstream popularity through TV shows like “Hootenanny,” which Tyson called “a horrible show — horrible.” Of the two, Tyson told the Classic Bands website in 2005, “We had a sound that was pretty unique. It was pretty vibrant for a few years, then it fell apart. It was based on our vocal mix. It was like no one else. . It was pretty unique. We made a couple of great albums. Then the albums got out of focus and the direction got weird and then the pressure from the record companies to get radio hits and the pressure from ourselves. We wanted it too. Everyone was having hits. We almost got one. You know, just couldn’t handle the stress.”
Although “Four Strong Winds” was the first song Tyson wrote, after the two began covering it, Sylvia Tyson’s first contribution as a songwriter was “You Were on My Mind”, which became a hit with We Five’s cover version. .
Ian Tyson said that the British invasion “killed the people’s movement. I’d say the rock scene in California killed it just as powerfully. Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and The Fish… all things San Francisco. That guy shuts things down. Turn it off completely. … The guy came back stronger than ever. And it’s more powerful. It went beyond San Francisco rock, acid rock and all that shit. People will always be around. In those days we thought it was doom. People didn’t want to listen to what they thought were people. Do people know who the hell is? But, they did not want to hear these words. That’s right. We all had to find something else.”
Of the contrast between his old and new styles and fans’ expectations at concerts, Tyson said in 2005, “I don’t do nostalgia. I am a writer and I keep writing. Some people get frustrated, they want to hear nothing but the old stuff, but I never gave them the old stuff. never At least half of the evening they have to listen to new things. If they don’t want to hear it, they don’t have to come back, but they will. So, I guess in the final analysis, the approach I took gave me longevity.”
His solo albums include “18 Inches of Rain,” “Cowboyography,” “Songs Along a Gravel Road” and “Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories.” Tyson also worked extensively with fellow artist-songwriter Tom Russell. He wrote a children’s book, “Primera: The Story of the Mustangs.”
Tyson told Folkworks that the theme of the disappearing West “was covered in most of my songs. It’s a big part of what I do. There’s a sense of loneliness that many of us feel who come from this part of the world. The more population that comes in, the less this culture will survive. That way of life is really under attack for people who are in the ranching culture today. The way of life starts to disappear because of population growth; that big, empty, romantic West disappears. You know, in California, there’s a lot of open country, especially in the northern part of the state. But The West that you and I love and grew up with cannot sustain itself. It is slowly becoming something else.”