Let’s turn our spotlight onto Ian and Sylvia, Bob Dylan’s friends and Greenwich Village compatriots. Ian and Sylvia are one of the most influential acts to come out of the 1960s Folk Movement. They have a unique sound which feels fresh today.
Ian and Sylvia’s music can be summed up in two words: unique and fresh. Firstly, their sound is unique, it’s very stripped down with unusual vocal counterpoint. They were pioneers of new country, fusing a folk and country sound and combining it with the intelligent, poetic lyrics of Folk Music. They were very much a precursor to Neil Young. Secondly, each of them are great songwriters in their own right. Thirdly, unlike most of their compatriots they avoided Protest Music. Fourthly, their incredible good looks and musical bond made them Folk’s romantic ideal.
Now some biographical info. Ian Tyson was born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 1933 and Sylvia Tyson, née Fricker, was born in Chatham, Ontario in 1940. Ian was originally a rodeo rider but after a rodeo injury moved to Toronto, studied commercial art and turned to music. Ian and Sylvia met in Toronto and began performing as a duo in 1959. By 1962 they had moved to New York City and were at the centre of the Greenwich Village Folk Scene. Ian and Sylvia married in 1964. Ian and Sylvia had a son, Clay Tyson in 1966. They divorced and stopped performing together as a duo in 1975.
They were signed by the infamous Albert Grossman, best known as Dylan’s manager. Albert Grossman also managed Peter, Paul and Mary so Ian and Sylvia were part of the crème de la crème of the Folk Scene. Sylvia was life-long friends with Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s girlfriend in his early Greenwich Village days and the woman with Dylan in the iconic photo on his album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. Sylvia credits Suze, a political activist, with being a major influence on Dylan’s political songs.
Having known Dylan before he became a Legend and ‘the Voice of a Generation’, Ian and Sylvia have a unique perspective of him. Sylvia said, ‘It always struck me as ironic that he became a cult hero because when we knew him he was nervous and penniless, and he used to hit on girls in the clubs, not to make it with them, but just to sleep on their floors.’ Sylvia observed about Dylan, ‘He was like a great blotter, soaking up everything from anyone who was any good, and his great talent was in the special way he put it all together’ (Ian and Sylvia The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings booklet liner notes).
Legend goes, Ian introduced Bob Dylan to pot! Ian says he is taking the 5th on that but if Suze Rotolo says it was true, then it was. As friends and peers in the same group, Dylan and Ian and Sylvia undoubtedly influenced each other. Ian says he was influenced to write his masterpiece, ‘Four Strong Winds’ after hearing either ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘The Times They Are a-Changin”. Ian and Sylvia have said that after Dylan started writing his own songs, they decided they would both have a go at songwriting.
Ian and Sylvia covered numerous Dylan songs. Apparently, Dylan said he wrote ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ for Ian and Sylvia to sing (Ian and Sylvia The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings booklet liner notes). Dylan, in turn, has covered Ian and Sylvia’s, ‘The French Girl’, ‘Song For Canada’ and ‘Four Strong Winds’. Bob Dylan and Ian and Sylvia also recorded much of the same traditional folk material including ‘(It Makes) A Long Time Man Feel Bad’ and ‘Rocks and Gravel’.
Ian and Sylvia produced several classic albums together as a duo before forming the influential country-rock group Great Speckled Bird in 1969. They divorced in 1975 but remained on good terms. Ian returned to ranching and produced an influential country album, ‘Cowboyography’ in 1987. Sylvia has had success as a singer-songwriter with classic songs such as ‘River Road’, she is also part of the all-female folk supergroup, Quartette, and has written a novel, ‘Joyner’s Dream’. Ian and Sylvia were both awarded Canada’s highest accolade, each became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1994.
Ian and Sylvia are one of my favourite acts to come out of the 60s Folk Movement and I find their music is fresh to listen. Let’s go back to what was so unique about the duo. Most importantly is their sound. As a teenager Sylvia had studied traditional folk songs and vocal harmony (her mother was a choir leader) so she chose most of material the duo covered. Sylvia’s developed a unique concept of harmony, using vocal counterpoint, rather than straightforward harmonies. Sylvia said, ‘My mother was a choir leader in the Anglican church, and I sang parts there. From that I knew traditional harmony, but I also have an ear for creating counter-melodies’ (Ian and Sylvia The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings booklet liner notes). Ian and Sylvia’s unique male/female harmonies are said to have influenced groups such as The Mamas & the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, We Five and Fairport Convention (Michael Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia).
Ian’s background as a cowboy brought an authentic country sound to the duo, particularly in his songwriting themes which celebrate the pastoral and the cowboy lifestyle (‘Farewell To The North’, ‘Summer Wages’, ‘Lonely Girls’). Ian Tyson’s evocative songwriting brilliantly captures Canada’s natural beauty.
Uniquely both Ian and Sylvia are great songwriters in their own right. Ian’s most famous song is ‘Four Song Winds’, one of the strongest songs to emerge from the 60s Folk Movement and widely recognised as a classic Canadian song. Sylvia’s most famous song is ‘You Were on My Mind’ which became a pop hit for We Five in 1965. Sylvia Tyson said ‘We just tried to write real songs about real people, and I think that’s possibly why they’ve lasted’. Rather uniquely amongst female folksingers, Sylvia was already writing her own songs by the early 60s whereas her peers Judy Collins and Joan Baez did not begin writing their own songs until the late 60s (Judy Collins wrote her first song, ‘Since You Asked’ in 1967). On the subject of Judy Collins, Judy had a hit in 1969 with Ian’s song, ‘Someday Soon’ which is also considered a classic song.
As Canadians they brought an exotic, fresh perspective to the American Folk Boom. Their success in the US helped pave the way for their fellow Canadians, musical legends such as Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
Unlike the majority of their Folksinger friends they did not write the seemingly compulsory Protest Song. Ian and Sylvia state there were two main reasons for this. In recent interviews Sylvia has said that as Canadians they did not feel it was their place to criticise the United States Government. Fundamentally they felt much protest music had the shelf-life of yesterday’s newspapers. Sylvia points out much Protest Music was not very good music. Sylvia noted much Protest Music was very specific about the causes of the time. This important point is one of the reasons why Dylan stands out. His Protest songs focused on constant themes such as war as opposed to specific conflicts, this combined with traditional folk song structures created a timelessness to much of his Protest material.
Together Ian and Sylvia represented the romantic ideals of the Folk Movement. Sylvia combines a natural classic beauty with the elegance and sophistication of Audrey Hepburn plus great literary talent and intellectual prowess. See this early Hootenanny performance where Sylvia looks distinctly Audrey Hepburn-esque, quite unusual for a folksinger! Ian had classically handsome movie-star good looks with an authentic, cowboy spirit. It’s very rare for a couple to be equally attractive as in the case of Ian and Sylvia. It’s been argued Ian and Sylvia’s romantic image is the inspiration for Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guests’ Folk Music satire, ‘A Mighty Wind’.
Ian and Sylvia’s influence is most evident in their pioneering fusion of a folk and country sound with intelligent, poetic lyrics. This is most striking in their iconic work in the band Great Speckled Bird. Great Speckled Bird comprised of Ian Tyson, Sylvia Tyson, Amos Garrett, Bill Keith, Ken Kalmusky and Ricky Marcus. Their 1970 album ‘Great Speckled Bird’ is considered a country-rock classic. Their influence is most notable in the work of Neil Young, particularly in his landmark album, ‘Harvest’. ‘Harvest’ with its fusion of country and folk sensibilities, stripped down sound, intelligent, sparse lyrics and natural imagery is very reminiscent of Ian and Sylvia’s work (particularly with Great Speckled Bird). Listen to Neil Young’s cover of the Canadian anthem ‘Four Strong Winds’ here.
Ian and Sylvia were experimenting with a country sound at the same time as Dylan (‘John Wesley Harding’, ‘Nashville Skyline’, ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘The Basement Tapes’) and it’s likely both influenced each other. It was around this time that Dylan was recorded rehearsing ‘The French Girl’ with The Band (1987). Dylan revisited the song, twenty years later in rehearsals with The Grateful Dead in 1987.
Ian and Sylvia were one of the brightest lights in the Folk Music Scene and their evolution into country-rock proved to be highly influential. But most of all their music is simply good. It’s definitely worth while checking them out. I would recommend Ian and Sylvia to fans of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Simon and Garfunkel as well as anyone who likes intelligent music.
To learn more about Ian and Sylvia and hear their reminisces of Dylan and the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, watch this excellent in depth interview from 2011. Hear Sylvia’s comments on ‘The Day Dylan Went Electric’. Watch an excellent interview with Ian. For more information, read their biography, ‘Four Strong Winds: Ian and Sylvia’ by John Einarson and Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson. Also check out Ian Tyson’s autobiography, ‘The Long Trail: My Life in the West’ by Ian Tyson and Jeremy Klaszus. Check out Ian and Sylvia 2010 performance of their classic song, ‘Four Strong Winds’ at the Mariposa Folk Festival, they headlined its first festival in 1961.