Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Man of the West: Ian Tyson's The Long Trail

Ian Tyson is a Canadian singer/songwriter of great artistic reputation. He penned some of the country’s most familiar songs, such as “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon”. In his autobiography, The Long Trail (Random House, 2010), written with Jeremy Klaszus, Tyson admits that his “childhood memories are lost to too many miles and too many whiskey bottles.” In spite of that condition, Tyson’s ability to recall his life seems unaffected.

The Long Trail reads like a conversation, albeit, one-sided. It’s as if Tyson has invited the reader into his den or kitchen and reminisced. This approach has Tyson endearing his readers without fuss or pretense. It’s a life of mischief, horses, the outdoors, women, travel and the so-called, Western frontier. It’s a life full of mistakes, but no regrets; yet one that still seems ordinary.

At first glance, it appears that Tyson has had a better relationship with horses than he he’s had with people. He often refers to horses by name with references to their heritage and how much he paid for them. But this would be a simplistic conclusion to reach. Tyson is great storyteller because he’s also a great songwriter and that combination has served him well in this book. He’s been able to pen some of the best songs about love, life and the West for years. And while The Long Trail offers some insights into his artistic process, it seems as wide open a book as the countryside Tyson eloquently talks about.

As a fan, I was interested in learning more about his style of writing, his muse and how he got into the music business. Alas, Tyson won’t let us in on that part of his life. For many pages, he merely assails the great outdoors and his father’s desire to be a cowboy. For Tyson, the horse came before the music. He was riding by the age of nine. By the age of 18 he was working in the Pacific Northwest in the forest service and entering amateur rodeos. A serious injury in one of those rodeos laid him up in hospital in 1956. He was recovering in the “broken leg ward” with a kid who knew how to play guitar and taught him the chords to “I Walk The Line” by Johnny Cash. It changed Tyson forever.

The Sons of the Pioneers 
Inspired by the Sons of the Pioneers, an American cowboy singing group that debuted in 1933, Tyson was deeply affected by the group’s harmonies and their look: usually in elaborate cowboy costumes. Country & western was a popular form in American music, west of the Mississippi. Tales of horses, cattle, campsites and the great outdoors were typical subjects of many songs from the era. For Tyson, after years of “not applying himself,” found music to be the one career that brought him a life purpose. “Music absorbed me in a gradual way," he writes. "I belonged to a generation that was waking up to music in the 1950s, and I’d gotten interested in jazz and big bands while working in the forest service…pretty soon I was playing in a rockabilly band.”

From there, Tyson developed his guitar playing and built a repertoire of cover songs, mostly in the folk and country traditions. He didn’t really pen his own songs until he arrived in Toronto in 1958 playing coffee houses, “ the city had more coffeehouses than folksingers. The demand far exceeded the supply, so I had no shortage of gigs.” At a party in Chatham, Ontario, Tyson met Sylvia Fricker. “Sylvia impressed me from the start…she could sing on pitch, which hardly anybody did in those days…”

By 1961, the duo known simply as Ian & Sylvia, became popular in the folk music circuit during its heyday in Canada and the United States. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Tom Paxton were all based in New York City, so Ian & Sylvia made their way down to the Big Apple and immersed into the city’s music scene. Their timing was very good. Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, decided to represent them and encouraged Tyson to write more songs. Like many of the singers and songwriters stationed in Greenwich Village, the Mecca of the American folk movement, Bob Dylan proved to be an important influence for his ability to write about what mattered to him. Tyson says that Dylan played him “Blowin’ in the Wind” which inspired him to write a song about his girlfriend at the time. She had gone to California; he had gone to New York. The separation was too much for Tyson, who not only longed for her but also for his wide-open country. That song turned out to be “Four Strong Winds.”

The rest, as it’s said, is history. But for Tyson, who dances over the significance of Ian & Sylvia as but a blip of a few great years plus a failed marriage, [Ian and Sylvia married in 1964 and divorced 10 years later], it is the calling of the West that truly defines who he is. “My corner of the West has been good to me over the years. But it’s a young man’s country…we’re absolutely shaped by the weather, and you’ve got to be a survivor to make it through.”

Ian Tyson tells his story without extrapolation. At times, he’s sad about the choices he’s made, namely the failed marriages, but he does sound at peace accepting his life as it has turned out, without regret. He’s particularly proud of his recordings, especially his album Cowboyography released in 1986. But for Tyson, being a cowboy was all he ever wanted, “being outside is a romantic element of the cowboy life, just like the six-gun. You can’t divorce romance from reality in the West, because the whole deal has been romantic right from the beginning…I was lured to the West by Will James, by Native cowboys in purple satin shirts, by the paintings of Charlie Russell and the cowboy photographs of Jay Dusard.”

In reading The Long Trail, you realize that there’s nothing truly extraordinary about Ian Tyson’s life. But his telling of it moves you like a song.

-- John Corcelli is a writer, actor, musician and theatre director.

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