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The Pioneering Spirit of Ian & Sylvia Tyson
To mark the passing of Ian Tyson, a consideration of the enduring legacy of the singing Tysons
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This time around, the focus is on Ian & Sylvia Tyson, on the occasion of the passing of Ian Tyson late last year at the age of 89.
I have long been a fan of this pioneering Canadian duo and in the below essay, I have tried to approach their legacy and music from a different angle, the focus being less on their folk recordings and more on the years of 1966 and 1967 in which they began to branch out into the worlds of folk-rock, pop and country as well as trying to make a case that the path they trod in the early sixties—moving to the States, hooking up with impresario Albert Grossman and singing with Vanguard, the premier folk independent label at the time—provided an opening for the flood of Canadian singer-songwriters and bands that proliferated in the late sixties and into the seventies.
A small stylistic note: at the beginning of the essay, I refer to Ian & Sylvia by their last names; in Sylvia’s case, by her maiden name Fricker. Once the essay’s chronology reaches the point when they were married in 1964 and Sylvia took Ian’s last name which she continues to use even though she and Ian divorced in 1975, I refer to them from that point on by their first names.
I hope you enjoy the essay and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as well as on Ian & Sylvia. Just click the button below!
Coming up next, to mark the recent passing of Thom Bell, a key architect of the Philadelphia Sound, will be an essay with some thoughts on the Spinners’ breakthrough debut album for Atlantic from 1973 which was produced by Bell.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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It started, as it usually does, with the blend. The sound that is greater than its individual parts. The Everly Brothers had it as did the Mills Brothers; the Beach Boys also as well as Simon & Garfunkel, and it was too when Ian Tyson, a 26-year-old born in Victoria, British Columbia, whose adventures in the rodeo were cut short after a fall and who came east to Toronto to first try to make it as an artist but soon turned his attention to music, and Sylvia Fricker, a 19-year-old born in Chatham, Ontario, who was also new in town and like Tyson, looking for a career in music, first sang together in 1959.
The sense of something clicking in the way Tyson’s robust, musky baritone complemented Fricker’s sharper, slightly astringent alto foretold the destiny that would link them so that even as Tyson forged a separate identity as perhaps Canada’s finest cowboy poet laureate who wrote, and rather quickly too, what many consider the country’s unofficial national anthem, ‘Four Strong Winds,’ it is impossible to situate his legacy, as his passing on December 29 of last year at age 89 forces us to do, without considering how Tyson and Fricker blazed the trail that their musical progeny would traverse in their wake.
In moving to New York, hooking up with Albert Grossman, signing with Vanguard Records, the premier independent folk label at the time, and creating a folk sound that balanced the purity of a Pete Seeger with the popularization of a Peter, Paul and Mary, Ian & Sylvia were the first in a line of Canadian musicians who sought fortune beyond the border of their home country.
Gordon Lightfoot immediately comes to mind as the most obvious beneficiary of Ian & Sylvia’s success and willingness to help an up-and-comer get his or her foot in the door. After the duo heard the Orillia, Ontario-born singer-songwriter at Steele’s Tavern—part of downtown Toronto’s flourishing music scene along Yonge Street—and being especially struck by Lightfoot’s composition ‘Early Morning Rain,’ Tyson had Lightfoot make a demo tape which he then gave to Grossman in New York who then sent John Court, his partner, to Toronto to scoop up Lightfoot. Hesitant about signing with Grossman’s outfit, it was Tyson’s exhortation, “Don’t be an idiot, Gord. Sign!” that finally got Lightfoot to put pen to paper and join Grossman’s roster of cutting-edge folk talent, which, in addition to Ian & Sylvia, and Peter, Paul and Mary, included the leader of them all, Bob Dylan.
Soon after Lightfoot signed, Grossman had Peter, Paul and Mary record his ‘For Lovin’ Me’ and turn it into a top-thirty hit as well as the aforementioned ‘Early Morning Rain,’ which floundered around the lower reaches of the Billboard chart. Ian & Sylvia recorded both in 1965, another boost to Lightfoot’s fortunes.
A few years later, Ian & Sylvia were among the very first to record a Joni Mitchell song (‘The Circle Game’) and also gave guitarist David Wilcox his first major exposure. But, even more compellingly, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that artists such as Neil Young, Anne Murray, the Guess Who, the Band, Lighthouse, Bruce Cockburn and many others had an inroad to not only success in Canada but also below the 49th parallel as the result of Ian & Sylvia's pioneering spirit. It was a success, however, that mostly eluded the duo.
The closest thing they had to a hit was 1967’s ‘Lovin’ Sound,’ which stalled at #101 on the Billboard “Bubbling Under” chart. By this time, their musical partnership—Ian & Sylvia—had also became a matrimonial one—Ian & Sylvia Tyson. Like many others in the folk scene, they had broadened their repertoire from the vast reservoir of traditional folk songs. In the three years after inspiration had borne ‘Four Strong Winds,’ Ian & Sylvia—both separately and together—increasingly wrote their own material. Ian wrote ‘Some Day Soon,’ which Judy Collins eventually made into a hit, ‘Red Velvet’ and ‘Play One More,’ among others. Sylvia penned ‘You Were On My Mind,’ which the San Francisco group We Five made a hit of in a somewhat sanitized version, ‘Travelling Drummer’ and ‘Gifts Are For Giving,’ among others. Together, they wrote ‘Short Grass,’ ‘Lonely Girls’ and ‘The French Girl.’
The instrumentation and arrangements eventually engaged with the tropes of folk-rock. 1966’s Play One More marked the duo’s first dalliance with electric instrumentation and drums. The album cover, shot by Toronto photographer Paul Rockett, also signified the level of mystique that Ian & Sylvia had. Ian is reclined with his guitar, lost in a song—perhaps even absorbed into it—and shot in half-profile. Sylvia, on the other hand, is starting straight at the camera; her gaze is penetrating, demanding and oh so cool. Bathed in red light and with Ian & Sylvia and the album title rendered in hyper-stylized serif fonts, the entire package has an almost intimidating hip allure even as the music seems on the surface to be more in the spirit of the back cover—a photo of the Tysons as homesteaders.
There’s the directness of the opening ‘Short Grass,’ an interpretation of Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes’ that draws attention to the warmth and depth of both the music and the lyrics, and the call of Appalachia in the old country standard ‘Satisfied Mind.’
Three other tracks, though, point to the front cover’s worldly assuredness. ‘When I Was a Cowboy,’ with its looping, implied beat augmented by electric bass and organ, illustrates how seductive, how sensual, the Ian & Sylvia blend could be. Hear how they dig into the rollicking nature of the song and how Sylvia’s spotlight in each verse highlights the unique timbre of her voice—pleasingly forceful might be the best descriptor here. A cover of Bacharach and David’s ‘Twenty-Four Hours to Tulsa,’ a big hit for Gene Pitney in 1963, with drums and electric guitar, brings out the cry in Ian’s voice, particularly in the refrain. The title track closes the album and boils over with atmosphere. There’s the arrangement that strikes the balance between the 12-string jangle of the Byrds with the mariachi sounds of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ in addition to a layer of strings. A story of a man wishing to avoid the impending reality of heartbreak, the song is dominated by Ian’s baritone—a sharply rich instrument. Hear how he summons its power to end a phrase like “play one more and then I’m leavin’, boys.”
In the considerations of Ian Tyson’s legacy, the necessity to qualify his contributions to music and to our cultural life now that he is gone, one thing that has often not been mentioned is just how good a singer he was. A scar on his vocal cords brought a permanent gravelly rasp to his voice in the mid-2000s but in his heyday, his voice had a plain-spoken power that when he dipped into the lower part of his range called forth a slight hint of bravado that never tipped over into excess. It commanded attention and to such an extent that it could obscure Sylvia’s contribution.
But, on something like their aforementioned cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Circle Game’—very likely the first recording of the song—which appeared on their follow-up to Play One More, So Much for Dreaming, there’s a clear sense of how their special blend worked.
On the chorus, taken at a faster clip than would be customary, Ian’s voice soars, especially on the line “we’re captive on a carousel of time,” while Sylvia stays tethered to the ground, providing a cushion, a counterpoint. Extrapolating it out to the main theme of Mitchell’s song, Ian is accelerating the march of time while Sylvia is doing what she can “to slow the circle down.”
So Much for Dreaming is the sound of Ian & Sylvia continuing to move ahead. It is their valedictory address to their folk roots—their cover of the traditional ‘Cutty Wren’ is a wild collision of rough-hewn acapella with the swirling, psychedelia of an insistent, swirling electric guitar riff.
The flirtation with pop on the album is often of a dreamy and seductive quality. The title track has a laconic opening, with Ian & Sylvia singing a canon, an approach that continues throughout the song. ‘Child Apart’ switches from a dramatic, thundering tom-tom driven beat with urgent singing from the duo that periodically resolves into a contemplative rhythm that draws out some particularly fine singing by Ian.
It could also be appealingly grooving and light. Sylvia’s feature on ‘Catfish Blues’ reminds of her dexterity with the 12-bar form and ‘Hold Tight’ of the drive Ian & Sylvia could muster when singing together.
It also marked the debut of one of Ian’s signature songs, ‘Summer Wages,’ an artful tale of fatalism. It is an unsatisfactory introduction, however. The Dylan beat employed—straight out of something like ‘She Belongs to Me’—all but annihilates the intricacies of Ian’s lyrics. At its heart, it’s a country song and that’s how it was re-made four years later and again 16 years later, when the Ian & Sylvia days were the domain of nostalgia and both had long struck out on their own, both musically and romantically.
By that time, Tyson had long become engrossed in country music and the ranching lifestyle; a cowboy’s cowboy, so to speak. In the late sixties, he was still just edging into it—it is most appropriate to credit Ian & Sylvia as being one of the progenitors of the country-rock movement. Listen to the wistful ‘Wild Geese’ or their graceful, swaying interpretation of ‘Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies’ and connect the spark of an idea in the slightly aggressive gait of both songs to what the Everly Brothers, Mike Nesmith, Gram Parsons, Richie Furay and others were doing at the time to find something new in the common ground between these two complementary types of music.
It was part of the spirit of freedom that was in abundance in the summer of 1967—the genres fluid, the possibilities endless, a euphoria in the grooves. ‘Lovin’ Sound,’ which, as mentioned earlier, was the closest thing that Ian & Sylvia had to a hit, captures that ethos. It’s bucolic and baroque, with a ringing guitar part, a road-house piano that sounds like a harpsichord and a swell of strings in the bridge. Speaking of the bridge, here again is another example of how fine a singer Ian Tyson was, particularly in how he uses his expressive powers—there is a dip into his baritone range on “old folks think of younger times” and a sense of lift to “you’re a loser, if you do.” In sum, the song, written by Ian, showed that he could write a pop song.
It was the title track to their second album of 1967, signifying their move from the folk-oriented Vanguard label to the more mainstream MGM. It stands as their most pop-oriented album. The cover, oozing Carnaby cool, is one with its often shadowy sound, particularly through the electric piano-laden cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘Hang On To a Dream’ and Sylvia’s mysterious ‘Trilogy.’
There is sunshine too on the album. ‘Sunday,’ which Ian & Sylvia wrote for the short-lived CBC public-affairs show Sunday in which Ian served as one of the hosts, is two minutes of hooky, earworm pop. Opening with a fanfare, a glorious announcement of the promise of a Sunday by the duo, it resolves into a repeat of the question, “what shall we do today?” The use of multitrack vocals and overdubs, in which a chorus of Sylvia’s bops away on the instrumental break and an Ian & Sylvia vocal in the foreground is set against another in the background, furthers the song’s evocation of the regenerative balm of the weekend, an elixir that the song makes clear is necessary and will quickly be yearned for again once another week commences.
‘Sunday’ may be far away from what we consider an authoritative Ian & Sylvia recording and indeed, after the album in which it appeared, Lovin’ Sound, was released, the duo focused almost exclusively on delving further into country and country-rock—something that Ian was more interested in than arguably Sylvia—for the rest of their time as a working duo (their final album was released on Columbia in 1972. They both ceased working together and were divorced in 1975). But the song, for all of its surface gloss and glibness, along with ‘Lovin’ Sound’ point to an essential truth about Ian & Sylvia Tyson: they stand as patriarch and matriarch to the twisting and forever growing family tree of Canadian singer-songwriters telling our stories and finding the universality in them. It’s a legacy forever worth celebrating.