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Folk Legend Ian Tyson Passes Away Aged 89

Jan 3, 2023

Hailing from Canada and best known as half of the popular Ian and Sylvia folk duo, Ian Tyson has sadly passed away at the age of 89 from “on-going health complications.”

Tyson was fascinated by the Will James cowboy books his father gave him and his love of cowboys, horses, and the wild west never left him. A teenage rodeo rider he suffered a serious ankle injury at the age of 24. Whilst in hospital he taught himself to play guitar to the tunes of Johnny Cash and later went onto play in the coffee houses and clubs of Toronto which is where he met Sylvia Fricker whom he subsequently married.

Between 1962 and 1975 he and Sylvia Fricker as a duo released 13 albums having moved to New York City in 1962 – a hub for the burgeoning folk movement. Not dissimilar to the folk trio Peter Paul and Mary, the Big Apple was the place to be in the early sixties with the likes of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell all vying for attention in Greenwich Village. Peter, Paul & Mary’s manager, Albert Grossman – who would later work with Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin – liked Ian and Sylvia and brought them to the attention of Vanguard Records who released their self-titled debut in 1962.

The American folk music revival of this time drew on the Appalachian acoustic ballad form, country blues and bluegrass and the Tyson’s were not averse to incorporating these stylings into their music. Although considered musical pioneers their commercial success was limited, as they were overtaken by fellow Canadians Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young. Nevertheless they were a popular live act and their harmonies were hugely influential on other folk-rockers of the time like the Byrds.

Like many developing folk artists of the era Ian and Sylvia launched their recording careers by covering other artists – remember even Bob Dylan’s first album was gleaned from listening to Folkways Anthology of American Folk. Once Dylan had written ‘Blowing in The Wind’ however it was a whole different ball game and Tyson’s response was to pen his best known song, the classic ‘Four Strong Winds’. Written in about half an hour in Albert Grossman’s apartment, the song became an anthem in his homeland and was covered by countless artists through the years including Bob Dylan and Neil Young and was a massive hit for Country artist Bobby Bare.

Despite these early successes, as the 60’s wore on Ian & Sylvia were marginalised by the double whammy of the British Invasion and West Coast psychedelia and an image that looked rather twee when compared to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane’s arrival. Coupled with the pressure from the record label and their own ambitions to find a ‘hit’ record the couple were unfocused and in Ian’s words ‘the direction got strange’.

1970 saw Ian & Sylvia forge a diverging path and have a great impact on fellow musicians with a new band called Great Speckled Bird. The band broke away from their folk roots and along with The Dillards and the Flying Burrito Brothers were pioneers of the emerging country-rock scene. Their album was innovative and really rocked but whilst it found critical acclaim the Tyson’s hard-core fans were resentful of this electric incarnation and eventually put an end to a promising period.

After his split both professionally and personally with Sylvia in the mid-seventies, Ian reinvented himself and went back to his roots. Son of a Welsh immigrant, he had experienced the reality of the western prairies wide-open spaces and that never left him. He described it as the unfenced West, the place where wild horses roam free – a now disappearing wild land where man and beast dwelled in harmony.

Tyson left the music scene in the early 80’s to pursue the real life of a cowboy on a ranch in a small town south of Alberta. There he fulfilled his dream of raising horses and even took part in trail drives. In the mid‘80s, he was re-discovered by way of the Elko Cowboy Poetry Festival – an annual event in Elko, Nevada. Tyson began recording again, inspiring the New Traditionalist movement in mainstream country and his collaborations with songwriter Tom Russell yielding two widely acknowledged classic songs, ‘Navajo Rug’ and ‘Canadian Whiskey’. Although he eschewed playing his earlier hits with Sylvia Tyson live for many years, he eventually decided to incorporate the beloved duo’s work into his repertoire much to his audiences delight during the latter part of his career.

Ian accrued many honours over the years. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and made member of the Order of Canada in 1994. A musician of great worth, his legacy is assured.

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