Ian Tyson, the Canadian folk singer best known for penning “Four Strong Winds,” has died at age 89.
The news was confirmed via his Facebook page, which noted that the singer passed away from “on-going health complications” on Dec. 29 at his ranch in Alberta, Canada.
Born in Victoria, Canada to British immigrants in 1933, Tyson grew up on a small farm, riding horses and competing in rodeos. When he was a teenager, a riding accident resulted in some extensive recovery time, which prompted Tyson to learn the guitar. He made his debut in 1956, playing in Vancouver with a rock and roll band called the Sensational Stripes.
After he graduated from the Vancouver School of Art, Tyson moved to Toronto, where he found work as a commercial artist. He also started performing in local music clubs, including gigs with singer Sylvia Fricker. Tyson and Fricker, known as Ian & Sylvia, became a full-time musical act in 1961 and, a year later, moved to New York City, the epicenter of folk music at the time, where acts like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were staking their claim. (Tyson and Fricker married in 1964.)
In New York, they met Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, as well as Peter, Paul and Mary. Grossman helped the duo land a record deal with Vanguard, on which their debut, self-titled album was released in 1962. It contained mainly traditional British and Canadian folk tunes, and though it was only moderately successful, it did help land them a performance slot at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
Their next album, Four Strong Winds, presented similar material, with the exception of a cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” plus its title track, a song with a distinctly Canadian quality, written by Tyson himself about an old girlfriend. Tyson had been inspired by Dylan to write his own original folk music, and he had asked Grossman if he could use his apartment to try his hand at songwriting. “And he said, ‘yeah, sure you can,'” Tyson recalled to NPR in 2012. “And that’s what happened. I went over there and it was a funky, little apartment. Took my guitar and just opened up the case and started to fooling around and strumming. And it took half an hour.” The song was a Top 10 hit in Canada (though it fared poorer in the U.S.) and went on to become a legendary song in the history of Canadian recorded music. It had been covered by Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Blue Rodeo, Waylon Jennings, Judy Collins and countless more.
Listen to Ian and Sylvia’s ‘Four Strong Winds’
Ian & Sylvia released a few more albums through the ’60s while remaining in New York, but then moved to Nashville in 1968. There they released Nashville, a country-folk album that set the stage for more commercially popular LPs like the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. More albums followed, including a full-band, country-rock album under the name Great Speckled Bird, whose self-titled 1969 debut was produced by Todd Rundgren.
Though Ian & Sylvia split in 1975 – both musically and maritally — Tyson went on to release a copious amount of solo music. In 1989, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. His most recent album arrived in 2015, Carnero Vaquero, and he continued to perform live. “People buy tickets. It’s wonderful. You can’t make people buy tickets. They either want to see you or they don’t,” he said in a mid-2000s interview. “I’m just very grateful. I’m very honored and flattered. So, it’s great. But, I don’t do nostalgia. I’m a writer and I keep writing. Some people get frustrated, they want to hear nothing but the old stuff, but I have never given them just the old stuff. Never. They gotta listen to new stuff at least half of the evening. If they don’t want to listen to it, they don’t have to come back again, but they do come back again. So, I guess in the final analysis, the approach I’ve taken has given me longevity.”
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