Thursday, October 13, 2011

Together Apart: Four Strong Winds, by John Einarson with Ian Tyson & Sylvia Tyson

Four strong winds that blow lonely,
Seven seas that run high,
All those things that don’t change come what may
But our good times are all gone,
And I’m bound for moving on,
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way…

John Einarson has done something remarkable. He has managed to bring Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson to the table at the same time. The alert reader will note that they are not referred to as “Ian and Sylvia Tyson” but as individuals who share a last name. Nevertheless they both talked to Einarson about their careers (together and apart) for a fascinating glimpse into the folk music world in this new book Four Strong Winds (McClelland & Stewart, 2011).

Their presences stand like two Colossi of Rhodes straddling the ‘60s and today. I’m not sure they will ever receive the credit they are due. They had the same manager as Bob Dylan, they played the same clubs as Peter, Paul & Mary, the top-flight musicians who played with them all went on to success (David Rea and David Wilcox among them) … but somehow their biggest hits were scored by other performers. Neil Young’s version of Ian’s “Four Strong Winds” and We Five’s top ten rendition of Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind” are the performances we remember.

In Phil Ramone’s memoir Making Records, he tells how Peter, Paul & Mary recorded ten vocal versions of each song and then pieced the final product together with a line from this version, and line from that. Ian & Sylvia recorded live in a big old church with a microphone hanging from the ceiling. Their harmonies were perfect. Einarson describes the recording methods, he tells tales of bad (or at least questionable) management, of life on the road, and life at home. The perfect harmony did not extend beyond the stage and studio.

Ian & Sylvia performing
Ian was always something of a ladies’ man, and besides, he and Sylvia were singing partners first. Their on-stage charisma led others to think they were involved romantically, and it seems that getting married just was the next logical step along the way. Sylvia was the pretty girl with the ethereal voice. She always had that touch of vibrato which let you know it was Sylvia and not someone else. Together they were something else. And after Vanguard (their first label) couldn’t figure out what to do with them, they switched to Columbia. But by then, as Einarson tells it, they were moving on, away from the folk songs and mountain music towards a blend of the past with a rock beat. The Great Speckled Bird they called it, and released a breakthrough album which featured guitar ace Amos Garrett and Bill Keith on pedal steel. Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly even drew them a logo. They weren’t particularly successful but they predated all those country-rock bands that came later.

Bill Keith didn’t much care for Ian’s leadership style, he’s quoted as saying, “Ian’s sharp edges and his authoritarian style were the salient characteristics of that gig for me. With Ian and Sylvia I was constantly made aware that I was an employee who worked for them and not at their level …” This aspect of Ian’s personality is highlighted throughout the book. A viewing of the DVD This Is My Sky emphasizes it. He’s the boss, no question about it.

I found the book to be one heck of a good read, and it surprised me that it was so blunt about these matters of character and personality.  Ian’s opinions will come across as harsh to some, but he stands by them. Ian is quoted as calling Bob Dylan “an obnoxious little jerk … he got away with singing out of tune and playing out of tune.” Sylvia says of Ian, “[he] never saw anybody as competition because he had such a strong sense of himself and his image and what he did.” 

I came away thinking I knew these two legendary people a lot better than I had going in. I felt an appreciation for the music they created together and separately that I was drawn to watch the Ian Tyson documentary again, and view some old footage of Ian & Sylvia from the old folk TV show Hullabaloo. There’s no denying that they were magical together. That magic comes through in Four Strong Winds.

 David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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